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Ann M. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 12, 2019

MELISSA ANN M., Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of Defendant's denial of her application 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. 5.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when he failed to provide specific, legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence for giving little weight Dr. Luci Carstens' medical opinion. Had the ALJ properly considered Dr. Carstens' opinion, Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) may have included additional limitations. The ALJ's errors are, therefore, not harmless, and this matter is reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.[1]


         On February 24, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging disability as of October 1, 2012. See Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (“AR”) 20. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 20. A hearing was held before ALJ Cheri Filion on March 16, 2016. See AR 40-96. A second, supplemental, hearing was held before ALJ Keith Allred on June 12, 2017. AR 97-130. In a decision dated August 30, 2017, ALJ Allred determined Plaintiff was not disabled. See AR 20-33. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See AR 1-5; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.[2]

         In the Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by failing to properly: (1) consider the medical opinion evidence and (2) consider Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. Dkt. 10, p. 2. Plaintiff requests remand for an award of benefits. Id. at pp. 17-18.


         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)).


         I. Whether the ALJ properly considered the medical opinion evidence.

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in his evaluation of the medical opinions of Dr. Luci Carstens, Ph.D. and Ms. Laura Landstrom, LMHCA. Dkt. 10, pp. 3-12.

         A. Dr. Carstens

         First, Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred when he gave little weight to Dr. Carstens' opinion. Dkt. 10, pp. 3-8. 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. 1996) (citing Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988); Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502, 506 (9th Cir. 1990)). 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)).

         On May 2, 2016, Dr. Carstens, an examining psychologist, completed a Psychological/Psychiatric Evaluation of Plaintiff. AR 666-77. Dr. Carstens conducted a clinical interview, a mental status examination (“MSE”), and a Personality Assessment Inventory of Plaintiff. AR 666-77. She documented her clinical findings, including Plaintiff's diagnoses. AR 666-77. Dr. Carstens opined Plaintiff was severely limited in her ability to adapt to changes in a routine work setting, communicate and perform effectively in a work setting, maintain appropriate behavior in a work setting, and complete a normal work day and work week without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms. AR 669. She found Plaintiff markedly limited in understanding, remembering and persisting in tasks by following detailed instructions and performing activities within a schedule, maintaining regular attendance, and being punctual within customary tolerances without special supervision. AR 669. Dr. Carstens also opined Plaintiff was moderately limited in learning new tasks, ...

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