United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S
DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS
B. Leighton United States District Judge
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Evaluation of Dr. Greaney's Opinion
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 ...