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Mendiola v. Berryhill

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

June 1, 2018

DENNIS SABLAN MENDIOLA, 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 Dennis Sablan Mendiola 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. 3.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when he failed to provide specific and legitimate reasons, supported by substantial evidence in the record, for rejecting medical opinion evidence. Had the ALJ properly considered this medical opinion evidence, the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) may have included additional limitations. The ALJ's error is therefore not harmless, and this matter is reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On September 22, 2014, Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and DIB, alleging disability as of December 1, 2013. See Dkt. 7, Administrative Record (“AR”) 20. The applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 20. ALJ Eric S. Basse held a hearing on August 2, 2016. AR 41-74. In a decision dated September 6, 2016, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 17-40. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, 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 provide specific and legitimate reasons, supported by substantial evidence in the record, for discounting medical opinion evidence from: (1) Dr. Geordie Knapp, Psy.D.; and (2) Dr. George Ankuta, Ph.D. Dkt. 9, pp. 1-6. Plaintiff argues that as a result of these errors, a remand for further administrative proceedings is warranted. Id. at 1.

         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 argues the ALJ failed to properly consider medical opinion evidence from Drs. Knapp and Ankuta. Dkt. 9.

         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. 1995) (citing Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502, 506 (9th Cir. 1990)); Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988)). 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)).

         A. Dr. Knapp

         Dr. Knapp conducted a psychological/psychiatric evaluation of Plaintiff in March 2015. AR 543-47. As part of his evaluation, Dr. Knapp conducted a clinical interview and mental status examination. See AR 545-47. On the mental status examination, Dr. Knapp found Plaintiff not within normal limits ...


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