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Moorman v. Berryhill

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

June 1, 2018

TUSHALINA MOORMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Social Security Operations, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          THERESA L. FRICKE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of her applications for disability insurance and SSI benefits. The parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73; Local Rule MJR 13.

         For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned reverses defendant's decision to deny benefits and remands this matter for further administrative proceedings.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On January 24, 2014, plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and SSI benefits, alleging that she became disabled beginning February 22, 2013. Dkt. 4, Administrative Record (AR) 21. These applications were denied by the Social Security Administration March 31, 2014, and reconsideration was denied on July 9, 2014. Id. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), at which plaintiff appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. Id.

         In a decision dated April 8, 2016, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform some jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy and therefore that she was not disabled. AR 33-34. Plaintiff's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council on June 19, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner; plaintiff appealed to this Court on December 1, 2017. AR 1; Dkt. 4; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         In a written decision dated April 8, 2016, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled.AR 23-32. Step one and two of the five-step analysis were resolved in plaintiff's favor. AR 23. The ALJ found that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability and that she had the following severe impairments: mental health conditions described as major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and pain disorder with related psychological factors. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that the plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. AR 25.

         In assessing the plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC), the ALJ found that she had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following non-exertional limitations: 1) she is limited to simple, routine tasks, and 2) superficial public contact. Because of his assessment of the plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that the plaintiff was not disabled because there were a number of jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the plaintiff could perform.

         Plaintiff seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and remand for an award of benefits. She alleges that the ALJ erred:

(1) in evaluating the medical evidence;
(2) in discounting plaintiff's credibility;
(3) in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity; and
(4) in finding plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that the ALJ erred in assessing medical opinion evidence and plaintiff's credibility, and therefore in determining the plaintiff's residual functional capacity, and thus in determining whether plaintiff is disabled.

         DISCUSSION

         The Court will uphold an ALJ's decision unless: (1) the decision is based on legal error; or (2) the decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017). Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988)). This requires “‘more than a mere scintilla, '” though “‘less than a preponderance'” of the evidence. Id. (quoting Desrosiers, 846 F.2d at 576).

         The Court must consider the administrative record as a whole. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014). The Court is required to weigh both the evidence that supports, and evidence that does not support, the ALJ's conclusion. Id. The Court may not affirm the decision of the ALJ for a reason upon which the ALJ did not rely. Id. Only the reasons identified by the ALJ are considered in the scope of the Court's review. Id.

         “If the evidence admits of more than one rational interpretation, ” that decision must be upheld. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984). That is, “[w]here there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, ” the Court “must affirm the decision actually made.” Allen, 749 F.2d at 579 (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).

         I. The ALJ's Evaluation of the Medical and Other-Source Opinion Evidence

         The plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to provide specific and legitimate reasons in discrediting the opinions of four treating medical professionals and psychologists. Specifically, the plaintiff claims that the opinions of Nancy Pascua, ARNP, Kimberly Wheeler, Ph.D., Natalie Boodin, M.D., and some opinions of John Nance, Ph.D., were not given sufficient weight.

         The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility and resolving ambiguities and conflicts in the medical evidence. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). Where the evidence is inconclusive, “questions of credibility and resolution of conflicts are functions solely of the [ALJ].” Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982). In such situations, “the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 601 (9th Cir. 1999). Determining whether inconsistencies in the evidence “are material (or are in fact inconsistencies at all) and whether certain factors are relevant to discount” medical opinions “falls within this responsibility.” Id. at 603.

         In resolving questions of credibility and conflicts in the evidence, an ALJ's findings “must be supported by specific, cogent reasons.” Reddick, 157 F.3d at 722. The ALJ can do this “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Id. at 725. The ALJ also may draw inferences “logically flowing from the evidence.” Sample, 694 F.2d at 642. Further, the Court itself may draw “specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir. 1989).

         The ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or examining physician. Trevizo 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 when a treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted, an ALJ may only reject that opinion “by providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence.” Id. However, the ALJ “need not discuss all evidence presented” to him or her. Vincent on Behalf of Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted) (emphasis in original). The ALJ must only explain why “significant probative evidence has been rejected.” Id. Essentially, “an ALJ errs when he rejects a medical opinion or assigns it little weight while doing nothing more than ignoring it, asserting without an explanation that another medical opinion is more persuasive, or criticizing it with boiler plate language that fails to offer a substantive basis for his conclusion.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012-1013 (9th Cir. 2014).

         In general, more weight is given to a treating physician's opinion than to the opinions of those who do not treat the claimant. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). On the other hand, an ALJ need not accept the opinion of a treating physician if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by medical findings or by the record as a whole. Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004). An examining physician's opinion is “entitled to greater weight than the opinion of a nonexamining physician.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. A ...


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