United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING CASE FOR FURTHER
RICARDO S. MARTINEZ CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Littlepaige seeks review of the denial of his application for
supplemental security income and disability insurance
benefits. Mr. Littlepaige contends the ALJ erred by
discounting his testimony and the opinions of several mental
health providers, and requests the Court remand his case for
further administrative proceedings. Dkt. #9. As discussed
below, the Court REVERSES the
Commissioner's final decision and
REMANDS the matter for further
administrative proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C.
Littlepaige is currently 47 years old, has a high school
education, and has worked as a bindery worker. Tr. 31. On
December 19, 2013, he applied for benefits, alleging
disability as of Mar 1, 2012. Tr. 19. His applications were
denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 19. After the
ALJ conducted a hearing on July 1, 2015, the ALJ issued a
decision finding plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 19-33. The ALJ
determined that the period at issue for Mr. Littlepaige's
applications for benefits began July 9, 2013, after previous
denials of benefits became administratively final. Tr. 19.
the five-step disability evaluation process,  the ALJ found:
Step one: Mr. Littlepaige has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since the relevant period began.
Step two: He has the following severe
impairments: schizoaffective disorder, learning disorder, and
post-traumatic stress disorder.
Step three: These impairments do not meet or
equal the requirements of a listed impairment.
Residual Functional Capacity: Mr.
Littlepaige can work at all exertional levels. He can
understand, remember and carry out simple, routine,
repetitive tasks. He cannot perform any tandem tasks, or
tasks involving cooperative or team effort. He can have
occasional, superficial contact with coworkers and
supervisors. He cannot have any contact with the general
Step four: He can perform past relevant work
as a bindery worker.
Step five: In the alternative, as there are
jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national
economy that he can perform, Mr. Littlepaige is not disabled.
Tr. 22-32. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request
for review, making the ALJ's decision the
Commissioner's final decision. Tr. 1.
Security regulations distinguish among treating, examining,
and nonexamining physicians. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527.
“While the opinion of a treating physician is …
entitled to greater weight than that of an examining
physician, the opinion of an examining physician is entitled
to greater weight than that of a non-examining
physician.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995,
1012 (9th Cir. 2014). An ALJ may only reject an
uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining doctor by
stating “‘clear and convincing reasons that are
supported by substantial evidence.'” Treviso v.
Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 675 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting
Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198
(9th Cir. 2008)). Even if “‘a treating or
examining doctor's opinion is contradicted by another
doctor's opinion, an ALJ may only reject it by providing
specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by
substantial evidence.'” Id.
Treating Doctor James R. Hopfenbeck, M.D.
Standard of Review
initial matter, Mr. Littlepaige contends that Dr.
Hopfenbeck's opinion is “uncontradicted”
because it is only contradicted by nonexamining doctors, and
thus can only be rejected based on “clear and
convincing” reasons. See Treviso, 871 F.3d at
675. But when contradicted by “another doctor's
opinion, ” even a nonexamining doctor's opinion, an
ALJ need only provide “specific and legitimate”
reasons. Id. at 675, 676 (where treating
physician's opinion was inferred to be inconsistent with
nonexamining physician's opinion, “specific and
legitimate” standard was applied). The “specific
and legitimate” standard applies here.
Hopfenbeck opined that, among other limitations, Mr.
Littlepaige would be markedly limited in his “ability
to complete a normal workday and workweek without
interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to
perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number
and length of rest periods.” Tr. 1385. He also opined
that Mr. Littlepaige would miss more than four days per month
because of his mental impairments or treatment. Tr. 1386.
discounted Dr. Hopfenbeck's opinion as inconsistent with
the medical record and with Mr. Littlepaige's daily
activities and efforts to work. Tr. 28-29.
Consistency with the Record
discounted Dr. Hopfenbeck's records on the grounds that
it conflicted with the record because his and other
providers' treatment notes showed generally normal mental
status examination results, Dr. Hopfenbeck did not personally
observe Mr. Littlepaige being distracted by internal stimuli,
and his opinion was based largely on Mr. Littlepaige's
erred in rejecting Dr. Hopfenbeck's opinion on the
grounds of inconsistency with the medical record and his own
treatment notes. Even the notes the ALJ cites as showing
generally normal findings contain frequent references to
abnormal findings such as poor or limited judgment and
insight, impulsive speech, restricted affect, “loose
associations [and] bizarre references.” Tr. 1071, 1083,
1088, 1096. Other objective findings in the same records
include: “[d]istracted by internal stimuli”;
“possible responding to internal stimuli”;
“ hallucinations”; “very
delusional”; “paranoid affect.” Tr. 1113,
1134, 1174, 1179, 1185, 1124. One report, from a psychiatric
social worker at the prison Mr. Littlepaige was in, required
him to be “assess[ed] for safety of others prior to
being allowed in day ...