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Williams v. Berryhill

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

May 10, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Social Security for Operations, Defendant.


          David W. Christel United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Timothy L. Williams filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of Defendant's denial of Plaintiff's applications for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and 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. 5.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in evaluating the medical opinion evidence of examining psychologist, Dr. Todd Bowerly, Ph.D. Had the ALJ properly considered Dr. Bowerly's opinion, the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) may have included additional limitations. The ALJ's error is therefore harmful, and this matter is 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.


         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on December 10, 2013 and January 10, 2014, respectively, alleging disability as of July 15, 2000. See Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (“AR”) 221-232. The applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 84, 165-172. A hearing was held before ALJ Linda Thomasson on October 28, 2015. See AR 35-70. In a decision dated March 15, 2016, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 12-34. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See AR 1-6; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

         In Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate: (1) the medical evidence; (2) Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony; and (3) Plaintiff's RFC and the findings at steps four and five. Dkt. 12 at 1-16. Plaintiff argues this case should be remanded for an award of benefits. Dkt. 12 at 16-18.


         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)).


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

         A. Examining psychologist, Dr. Bowerly,

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of Department of Social and Health Services (“DSHS”) examining psychologist, Dr. Bowerly. Dkt. 12 at 2-5.

         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 October 2013, Dr. Bowerly performed a psychological evaluation of Plaintiff. AR 355-59. Dr. Bowerly diagnosed Plaintiff with major depressive disorder, recurrent, severe with psychotic features, and rule out schizoaffective disorder, noting “psychotic features may be more primary at this point”. AR 356-57. Dr. Bowerly rated Plaintiff's Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score at 35. AR 356-57. Dr. Bowerly observed Plaintiff had slow speech; blunted, depressed, constricted, and flat affect; depressed mood; poor recent memory; and poor insight/judgment. AR 359. Dr. Bowerly opined Plaintiff was severely limited[1] in his ability to understand, remember and persist in tasks by following very short and simple and detailed instructions; perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances without special supervision; complete a normal work day and work week without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms; maintain appropriate behavior in a work setting; and set realistic goals and plan independently. AR 357. Dr. Bowerly opined Plaintiff was markedly limited[2] in his ability to learn new tasks; perform routine tasks without supervision; adapt to changes in a routine work setting; make simple work-related decisions; be aware of normal hazards and take appropriate precautions; ask simple questions or request assistance; and communicate and perform effectively in a work setting. AR 357.

         The ALJ assigned little weight to Dr. Bowerly's opinion, including the GAF score, finding his opinion was: (1) based on Plaintiff's self-reports during a one-time “snapshot encounter[]” ...

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