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Nieblas v. Berryhill

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

July 5, 2018

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


          Ronald B. Leighton United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Maricela Madrigal Nieblas's Complaint (Dkt. 3) for review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of her applications for disability insurance (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSDI”) benefits.

         Madrigal Nieblas suffers from headaches, cerebral trauma, cognitive disorder, anxiety disorder, and somatoform disorder. See Administrative Record (Dkt. 7) 20. She applied for DIB on May 5, 2014, and SSDI on September 26, 2014, alleging she became disabled on September 12, 2012.[1] See AR 94-95, 113, 133. Both applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 110, 131, 149.

         Administrative Law Judge Kimberly Boyce conducted a hearing on October 31, 2016, at which Madrigal Nieblas and a vocational expert testified via telephone.[2] AR 47-84.

         On December 28, 2016, ALJ Boyce issued a decision finding Madrigal Nieblas not disabled. AR 39. The Appeals Council denied Madrigal Nieblas's request for review on October 2, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. See AR 1; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. On December 12, 2017, Madrigal Nieblas filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See Complaint.

         Madrigal Nieblas 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 Gary Stobbe, M.D. Pl.'s Op. Br. at 1.


         The parties have seemingly ignored the Court's standard of review here, as they spent much of their briefs rearguing the evidence. The Court does not reweigh the evidence, but instead must uphold the Commissioner's decision if it 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). “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). 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)).

         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.

         Madrigal Nieblas argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of treating physician Gary Stobbe, M.D. See Pl.'s Op. Br. at 1. “If a treating physician's opinion is ‘well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record, [it will be given] controlling weight.'” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 631 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527) (alterations in original); accord Ghanim v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, 1160 (9th Cir. 2014). When a treating physician's opinion is contradicted, the ALJ may only reject it by providing “specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1996). The ALJ can satisfy this requirement “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725 (citing Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989)).

         When analyzing a treating physician's opinion, the ALJ must “consider factors such as the length of the treating relationship, the frequency of examination, the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, or the supportability of the opinion.” Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 676 (9th Cir. 2017). However, an “ALJ is not required to make an express statement that she considered all the factors outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 1527(c).” Kelly v. Berryhill, ___ Fed.Appx. ___, 2018 WL 2022575, at *3 n.4 (9th Cir. May 1, 2018).

         Dr. Stobbe is a board-certified neurologist who works in the subspecialty area of traumatic brain injuries. AR 1213. He saw Madrigal Nieblas three times in 2014 pursuant to a referral from her primary care physician. See AR 953-68. On July 11, 2014, during his first examination, Dr. Stobbe diagnosed Madrigal Nieblas with anxiety, chronic posttraumatic headache, insomnia, persistent post-concussion syndrome, and temporomandibular joint dysfunction. AR 965. Dr. Stobbe saw Madrigal Nieblas again on August 8, 2014. AR 959. Dr. Stobbe noted that he was “pleased with her initial progress” since the earlier visit, but that Madrigal Nieblas was still experiencing headaches and anxiety. AR 958-59.

         Dr. Stobbe last saw Madrigal Nieblas on October 27, 2014. AR 953. At that appointment, Madrigal Nieblas reported that she was “bombarded” with independent medical examinations in August, September, and the beginning of October, which set back all of her symptoms. Id. Dr. Stobbe maintained his original diagnoses, but did not identify any particular work or other limitations. AR 954.

         On March 9, 2015, Dr. Stobbe gave deposition testimony as part of Madrigal Nieblas's workers' compensation claim stemming from her October 2011 workplace injury. See AR 1208. He confirmed his diagnoses, noting that Madrigal Nieblas was suffering from “migraine-type headache[s] that [were] associated with the light sensitivity, the sound sensitivity, the smell sensitivity, the nausea and disequilibrium as well as probably some of her cognitive complaints.” AR 1217. ...

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