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Nelles v. Berryhill

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

May 11, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This matter comes before the Court on review of the file herein.

         Procedural History. On September 27, 2017, Plaintiff filed this civil action, alleging that the Social Security Administration improperly denied her application for disability insurance when the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of Plaintiff's longtime treating physician, David L. Stoller, M.D. Dkt. 1. Plaintiff argues that the Court should reverse the ALJ's decision and award her benefits. Dkt. 9. The Commissioner maintains that the ALJ properly discounted Dr. Stoller's opinion when the opinion was inconsistent with his treatment notes, he did not treat Plaintiff's anxiety, and he relied on Plaintiff's self-reports. Dkt. 10.

         Basic Data. Born in 1980, Plaintiff has prior work experience as a telephone solicitor, childcare provider, dishwasher, sandwich maker, and door-to-door salesperson. Tr. 26. She has at least a high school education. Id.

         ALJ Decision. The ALJ found: (1) that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act; (2) that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 30, 2014; (3) that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome status post 2 release surgeries on the left and 2 release surgeries on the right, diabetes, bilateral patellofemoral disorder, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder (posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) and panic disorder), borderline personality disorder, and alcohol abuse; and that the impairments, even in combination, did not qualify under the Listings; (4) that the Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity:

. . . to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except she is able to occasionally climb, balance, kneel, stoop, crouch, and crawl; she is able to frequently handle and finger; she is limited to occasional exposure to hazardous conditions, such as proximity to unprotected heights and moving machinery; she is limited to tasks that can be learned in 30 days or less, involving no more than simple work-related decisions and few work place changes; she is limited to occasional and superficial public interaction; and is able to interact with coworkers on a casual or superficial basis, but she would not do well as a member of a highly interaction [sic] or interdependent work group.

that she has no past relevant work; and lastly, (5) that Plaintiff could perform other work existing in the national economy, such as a blue print trimmer, small products assembler, office cleaner/night cleaner/janitor, final assembler and sealer. Tr. 16-28. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Id.

         Legal Standard. The findings of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration are conclusive (42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and the decision of the Commissioner to deny benefits will be overturned only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or it is based on legal error. Gonzalez v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 1197, 1200 (9th Cir.1990).


         Plaintiff asserts that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and remanded for an immediate award of benefits (Dkt. 9) because of his mishandling of treating doctor Stoller's opinion, and the Commissioner maintains that the ALJ's decision should be affirmed, or if it is not, argues the case should be remanded for further proceedings (Dkt. 10).

         “The opinions of treating doctors should be given more weight than the opinions of doctors who do not treat the claimant. Where the treating doctor's opinion is not contradicted by another doctor, it may be rejected only for ‘clear and convincing' reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 632 (9th Cir. 2007)(internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Where, as here, “the treating doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor, the ALJ may not reject this opinion without providing ‘specific and legitimate reasons' supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Id. “This can be done by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Id.

         ALJ Erred in the Treatment of Dr. Stoller's December 20, 2015 Opinion.

         The opinion at issue is found in a December 20, 2015 letter from Dr. Stoller, who has been providing Plaintiff care regularly over the last 10 years. TR. 675-676. The opinion provides:

The primary disabling illness relates to her type I diabetes mellitus. [Plaintiff's] diabetes has been quite labile with widely fluctuating blood sugars. The wide fluctuations in blood sugars negatively affect her ability to concentrate, her memory and social functioning. Her symptom [sic] can be quite severe when her glucose is low. She has been making improvements of ...

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