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Thomas v. Berryhill

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

June 21, 2018

MATTHEW GORDON THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Social Security for Operations, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          Ronald B. Leighton United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Matthew Gordon Thomas's Complaint [Dkt. 1] for review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of his application for supplemental security income benefits.

         Thomas suffers from degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine (status post two surgeries); and degenerative joint disease of the left shoulder (status post surgery to repair Bankart lesion and labrum tear). See Dkt. 5, Administrative Record 19. He applied for SSI on March 29, 2013, alleging he became disabled beginning on January 15, 2013. See AR 99-100. That application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. AR 112, 127-28. Administrative Law Judge Rudolph Murgo conducted a hearing on November 4, 2015, at which Thomas and a vocational expert testified. AR 66-98. At the conclusion of the hearing, the ALJ determined that expert medical testimony was necessary to decide Thomas's claims, and set a supplemental hearing. AR 97. The ALJ set the supplemental hearing on February 17, 2016, but reset the hearing due to late submission of medical evidence. AR 60, 63. The ALJ held a third hearing on May 12, 2016, at which time he took testimony from two impartial medical experts and a vocational expert. AR 38-59.

         On June 16, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Thomas not disabled. AR 31. The Appeals Council denied Thomas's request for review on August 18, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. See AR 1-3; 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. On October 23, 2017, Thomas filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See Dkt. 1.

         Thomas argues that the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits should be reversed and remanded for further proceedings because the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion of treating physician Stephen Greaney, M.D.; and in making step five findings unsupported by substantial evidence in the record. Dkt. 9 at 1.

         DISCUSSION

         The Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court if the Commissioner applied the “proper legal standard” and “there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support” that determination. Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005); see also Batson v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Webb, 433 F.3d at 686 (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). “The substantial evidence test requires that the reviewing court determine” whether the Commissioner's decision is “supported by more than a scintilla of evidence, although less than a preponderance of the evidence is required.” Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975). While the Court is required to examine the record as a whole, it may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the Commissioner's conclusion that must be upheld. Id.; Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984) (“Where there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, we must affirm the decision actually made.”) (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).

         I. Evaluation of Dr. Greaney's Opinion

         The ALJ determines credibility and resolves ambiguities and conflicts in the medical evidence. See Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). Where the medical evidence in the record is not conclusive, “questions of credibility and resolution of conflicts” are solely the functions of the ALJ. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982). In such cases, “the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Morgan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 601 (9th Cir. 1999). Determining whether inconsistencies in the medical evidence “are material (or are in fact inconsistencies at all) and whether certain factors are relevant to discount” the opinions of medical experts “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 725. 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. The ALJ also may draw inferences “logically flowing from the evidence.” Sample, 694 F.2d at 642. Further, the Court 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 a treating physician. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). Even when a treating physician's opinion is contradicted, that opinion “can only be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Id. at 830-31. 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 Id. at 830.

         Thomas argues the ALJ erred by failing to give a specific and legitimate reason supported by substantial evidence to disregard the opinion of treating physician Stephen Greaney, M.D. that Thomas is limited to standing or walking for one hour at a time, for up to four hours in a normal eight-hour work day. The Court agrees.

         Dr. Greaney has been Thomas's primary care physician for at least ten years. See AR 1496. Dr. Greaney opined that Thomas suffers from depression, anxiety, lumbar postlaminectomy syndrome, and myelopathic pain syndrome. Id. Thomas's primary symptom is pain. Id. In January 2016, Dr. Greaney completed a functional capacity questionnaire. AR 1496-98. In the questionnaire, Dr. Greaney opined that, because of Thomas's impairments, he would be limited to lifting and/or carrying 20 pounds occasionally, and 20 pounds frequently; standing and/or walking for one hour at a time, for up to four hours in a normal eight-hour work day; sitting for three to four hours at a time; and occasionally climbing, balancing, stooping/bending, kneeling, crouching, crawling, reaching overhead, reaching to shoulder height, handling, fingering, and feeling. AR 1497.

         The ALJ claimed to give Dr. Greaney's opinion significant weight, except as to occasionally reaching, handling, and fingering, which the ALJ found inconsistent with Thomas's medical imaging, and the medical expert's testimony. AR 28. However, the ALJ did not include any standing or walking limitation in his RFC, nor did ...


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