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Allen L. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 12, 2019

JOHN ALLEN L., Plaintiff,




         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits for a closed period of disability from May 1, 2014 until June 27, 2016, the date that Plaintiff returned to full-time work. AR at 38. Plaintiff contends the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred by rejecting the medical opinions of two examining psychologists, David Widlan, Ph.D. and Miles Hohnegger, Ph.D., and an examining physician, Ann Alvarez M.D. (Dkt. # 8 at 1.) As discussed below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision, and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.


         Plaintiff was born in 1973, graduated from high school, and completed approximately a year and a half of college. AR at 36. In October 1994, Plaintiff was injured during an electrocution accident in Haiti while serving in the United States Army. Id. at 43. As a result of the electrocution, Plaintiff injured his right hand and foot. Doctors later amputated a large portion of Plaintiff's right foot. Despite his injuries, Plaintiff continued to work until sometime in 2014. In June 2016, Plaintiff began working as a project manager for a carpet and flooring company. Id. at 42. Prior to June 2016, Plaintiff was last gainfully employed in May 2014. Id. at 56.

         On October 29, 2014, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits claiming his disability began on May 1, 2014. AR at 15. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Id. After the ALJ conducted hearings on December 20, 2016 and March 16, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled, able to perform past relevant work, and in the alternative, the ALJ found that there are other jobs existing in the national economy that Plaintiff is able to perform. Id. at 26-27.

         The ALJ found that the Plaintiff had severe impairments including remote partial amputation of the right foot, right wrist impairment status post injury and carpal tunnel release, right knee degeneration, diabetes, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and substance addiction disorder. AR at 17. The ALJ determined that the impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment and that he has the residual functional capacity to perform light work with some limitations. Id. at 17-19. As part of his decision, the ALJ evaluated the medical opinions of two State agency consultants, giving these opinions significant weight. Id. at 24. With respect to Drs.Widlan and Hohenegger, the ALJ gave them “some/partial weight” because they both only evaluated the Plaintiff on one occasion, relied heavily on the Plaintiff's subjective reports of limitations, used vague terms, and because the Plaintiff claimed more severe limitations during these evaluations than he had reported throughout the treatment records. Id. at 24. As for Dr. Alvaraz, the ALJ gave little to no weight to her opinion because there was no indication she actually treated the Plaintiff, used unclear terms, and offered contradictory limitations in the same opinion. Id. at 25.

         Finally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work, or alternatively, that given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the Plaintiff is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. AR at 27. As the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff appealed the final decision of the Commissioner to this Court.


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits when 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 (9th Cir. 2005). As a general principle, an ALJ's error may be deemed harmless where it is “inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012) (cited sources omitted). The Court looks to “the record as a whole to determine whether the error alters the outcome of the case.” Id. “Substantial evidence” is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.

         Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving any other ambiguities that might exist. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). 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.


         Plaintiff appeals only the issue of whether the ALJ erred by “rejecting” the medical opinions of Drs. Widlan, Hohnegger and Alvarez. (Dkt. # 8 at 1-2.) As a threshold matter, the ALJ did not reject these opinions, but rather gave them partial weight. Regardless, the Court finds that the ALJ's reasoning for affording these opinions lesser weight than other evidence in the record was based on specific and legitimate reasons, supported by substantial evidence.

         There are three types of physicians: “(1) those who treat the claimant (treating physicians); (2) those who examine but do not treat the claimant (examining physicians); and (3) those who neither examine nor treat the claimant [but who review the claimant's file] (nonexamining [or reviewing] physicians).” Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201-02 (9th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted). Generally, a treating physician's opinion carries more weight than an examining physician's, and an examining physician's opinion carries more weight than a reviewing physician's. Id. at 1202. “In addition, the regulations give more weight to opinions that are ...

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