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Renfro v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

April 18, 2018

JASON LEE RENFRO, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Social Security for Operations, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          DAVID W. CHRISTEL, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Jason Lee Renfro filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of Defendant's denial of his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and Local Rule MJR 13, the parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. See Dkt. 6.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in failing to properly consider the medical opinions of Dr. Backlund. Had the ALJ properly considered the medical opinion evidence, the ALJ may have determined Plaintiff is disabled or included additional limitations in the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment. Therefore, the ALJ's error is harmful and this matter should be reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Deputy Commissioner of Social Security for Operations (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On April 3, 2014 Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of April 3, 2014. See Dkt. 9, Administrative Record (“AR”) 83-84. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and reconsideration. See AR 91, 99. A hearing was held before ALJ Laura Valente on October 18, 2016. See AR 36-90. On January 31, 2017, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 11-30. On October 6, 2017 Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, making the ALJ's January 31, 2017 decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See AR 1-6; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

         In the Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by failing to properly consider: (1) the opinions of treating psychiatrist Dr. Mark Backlund M.D., mental health counselor Sharon Olson, LMHC, and state agency consulting psychologists Dr. Diane Fligstein, Ph.D., and Dr. Michael Brown, Ph.D.; (2) Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony; and (3) the RFC assessment and step five findings. Dkt. 11.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits if the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1999)).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Whether the ALJ properly considered the medical opinion evidence.

         Plaintiff alleges the ALJ failed to properly consider the medical opinion evidence of Dr. Backlund, Ms. Olson, Dr. Fligstein, and Dr. Brown. Dkt. 11 at 13-16.

         A. Dr. Backlund, treating psychiatrist

         Plaintiff first contends the ALJ failed to provide adequate reasons for giving minimal weight to the opinions of treating psychiatrist, Dr. Backlund. Dkt. 12 at 6-11.[1] The ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or examining physician. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988); Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502, 506 (9th Cir. 1990)). When a treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted, the opinion can be rejected “for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31 (citing Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1043 (9th Cir. 1995); Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1983)). The ALJ can accomplish this by “setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989)).

         In April 2015, Dr. Backlund opined Plaintiff is seriously limited[2] in his ability to ask simple questions or request assistance, set realistic goals or make plans independently of others, interact appropriately with the general public, travel in an unfamiliar place, use public transportation, and work in coordination with or in proximity to others without being unduly distracted.[3] AR 457-58. Dr. Backlund indicated Plaintiff is unable to meet competitive standards[4]in making simple work-related decisions, completing a normal workday and work week without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms, accepting instructions and responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors, getting along with co-workers or peers without unduly distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes, and dealing with normal work stress. Id. Dr. Backlund opined Plaintiff is extremely limited in activities of daily ...


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