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Littlepaige v. Berryhill

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

May 11, 2018

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



         Craig 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. § 405(g).


         Mr. 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.


         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] 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.[2]
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 public.
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.[3]


         A. Medical Opinions

         Social 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.

         1. Treating Doctor James R. Hopfenbeck, M.D.

         a. Standard of Review

         As an 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.

         b. Dr. Hopfenbeck's Opinion

         Dr. 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.

         The ALJ 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.[4]

         c. Consistency with the Record

         The ALJ 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 self-reports.

         The ALJ 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 ...

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