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Alghasi v. Berryhill

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

July 19, 2018

ASHKAN ALGHASI, 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 Ashkan Alghasi 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”). 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. 2.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in his treatment of medical opinion evidence. Had the ALJ not erred, the ALJ's Step Two findings may have changed, and 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 Deputy Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On May 11, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging disability as of December 28, 2007. See Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (“AR”) 21. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 21. ALJ Wayne Araki has held two hearings and issued two decisions in this matter. The ALJ held the first hearing on September 12, 2013. AR 35-51. In a decision dated December 2, 2013, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 18-34. Plaintiff appealed that decision to the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, which remanded the case pursuant to a stipulated motion for remand from the parties. See AR 417-18, 425-26, 429.

         The ALJ held the second hearing in this matter on January 31, 2017. AR 374-88. In a decision dated June 9, 2017, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 348-73. Plaintiff did not file written exceptions with the Appeals Council, making the June 9, 2017 decision the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. Plaintiff now appeals the ALJ's June 9, 2017 decision.[1]

         In Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by failing to: (1) provide legally sufficient reasons to reject medical opinion evidence from Dr. Azar Sadeghalvad, M.D., and Dr. Richard W. Washburn, Ph.D.; (2) account for all of his “severe” impairments at Step Two of the sequential evaluation process; and (3) provide clear and convincing reasons to reject Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. Dkt. 12, pp. 2-17. Plaintiff argues that, as a result of these errors, an award of benefits is appropriate. Id. at 18.

         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 asserts the ALJ erred in his consideration of medical opinion evidence from Drs. Sadeghalvad and Washburn. Dkt. 12, pp. 2-13.

         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. Sadeghalvad

         Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Sadeghalvad, provided her opinion regarding Plaintiff's conditions and workplace limitations on a disability form dated March 14, 2013.[2] AR 275-78. Dr. Sadeghalvad noted Plaintiff had several diagnosed conditions, including “post renal failure with cadaver renal transplant on chronic - permanent, immunosuppressive medications, ” “RLQ [right-lower quadrant] pain, ” “chronic back pain, ” “sleep apnea, ” and “obesity - morbid[].” AR 275. Dr. Sadeghalvad opined that these conditions contribute to Plaintiff's limitations in work activities. AR 275. In particular, Dr. Sadeghalvad opined these conditions limited Plaintiff to sitting, standing, and walking for less than fifteen minutes at a time. AR 275. Dr. Sadeghalvad moreover wrote that Plaintiff could never climb, twist, bend, squat, or crawl, and could reach, grasp, use a keyboard, and use fine manipulation for fifteen to thirty minutes at a time. AR 275. Further, Dr. Sadeghalvad determined Plaintiff could lift, carry, and push less than ten pounds for less than ten minutes at a time. AR 277. She also opined Plaintiff was “severely limited, ” indicating she believed Plaintiff was unable to lift at least two pounds or unable to stand or walk. AR 277. In all, Dr. Sadeghalvad concluded Plaintiff could participate in work for zero hours each week. AR 275.

         The ALJ discounted the weight given to Dr. Sadeghalvad's opinion for three reasons:

(1) [O]ther than a list of diagnoses/conditions and claimant's current treatment plan/providers (ENT, nephrology, ophthalmology), the doctor provided little evidence of clinical findings to support the opinion of permanent disability and functional limitations to preclude all work. (2) The doctor also indicated that claimant needed further evaluation or assessment. (3) The primary care provider's opinion of total disability is not consistent the claimant's nephrology evaluations/exams and laboratory testing with Drs. Mahallati and Brockenbrough, discussed above, indicating stable renal function and generally normal labs, as well as Dr. Mahallati's comments in treatment notes questioning the claimant's assertions of disability.

         AR 364 (numbering added) (citations omitted); see also AR 365 (“Dr. Sadeghalvad's opinion of ...


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