United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
MATTHEW A. B., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Social Security for Operations, Defendant.
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S
DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS
W. CHRISTEL UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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”) and disability insurance benefits
(“DIB”). 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.
considering the record, the Court concludes the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when she
failed to provide specific, legitimate reasons, supported by
substantial evidence, to reject medical opinion evidence from
Dr. Jennifer Koch, Psy.D., and Dr. Terilee Wingate, Ph.D. Had
the ALJ properly considered these medical opinions, 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 for Operations
(“Commissioner”) for further proceedings
consistent with this Order.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
October 19, 2010, Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and
DIB, alleging disability as of June 26, 2009. See
Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (“AR”) 16. The
claims were denied upon initial administrative review and on
reconsideration. See AR 161. After holding a
hearing, ALJ Mattie Harvine-Wood issued a decision on October
25, 2012, finding Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 158-78.
Plaintiff did not appeal ALJ Harvine-Wood's decision;
thus, it is administratively final. See AR 16.
October 9, 2014, Plaintiff filed the present applications for
SSI and DIB. See AR 16. Plaintiff alleges disability
beginning October 26, 2012. AR 16. The claims were denied
upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration.
See AR 16. ALJ Marilyn S. Mauer held hearings on
September 14, 2016 and November 28, 2016, at which she
granted continuances to allow Plaintiff to obtain
representation and submit additional medical evidence into
the record. See AR 16, 111-21, 122-26. On April 5,
2017, the ALJ held another hearing. AR 127-57. In a decision
dated May 23, 2017, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not
disabled. AR 13-42. The Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision,
making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the
Commissioner. See AR 1-6; 20 C.F.R. §§
404.981, 416.1481. Plaintiff now seeks review of ALJ
Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ
erred by failing to properly: (1) consider medical opinion
evidence from examining physicians Drs. Koch and Wingate, as
well as opinion evidence from Dr. Brett C. Trowbridge, Ph.D.,
Dr. Tasmyn Bowes, Psy.D., Dr. Shawn Kenderdine, Ph.D, and
non-examining physicians Dr. Leslie Postovoit, Ph.D., and Dr.
Gary L. Nelson, Ph.D.; (2) evaluate Plaintiff's
subjective symptom testimony and two lay witness opinions;
(3) apply the doctrine of res judicata pursuant to
Acquiescence Ruling (“AR”) 97-4(9) and Chavez
v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 691, 693 (9th Cir. 1988); and (4)
determine the RFC and Step Five findings. See Dkt.
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
Whether the ALJ properly considered the medical opinion
objects to the ALJ's assessment of medical opinion
evidence from examining physicians Drs. Koch, Wingate,
Trowbridge, Bowes, and Kenderdine, and non-examining
physicians Drs. Postovoit and Nelson. Dkt. 12, pp. 5-9, 13.
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)).
argues the ALJ failed to provide any specific, legitimate
reason to reject Dr. Koch's medical opinion. Dkt. 12, pp.
September 19, 2013, Dr. Koch conducted a
psychological/psychiatric evaluation of Plaintiff. AR
588-601. Dr. Koch's evaluation included a record review,
clinical interview, mental status examination, Beck Anxiety
Inventory, and Beck Depression Inventory-II. See AR
588-601. In her clinical findings, Dr. Koch found Plaintiff
has depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
AR 590. Dr. Koch wrote that she based these findings on her
observations of Plaintiff's flat affect, nervousness, and
poor eye contact, as well as Plaintiff's reports,
including reports of low self-esteem, low motivation,
hypersomnia, worrying, and avoidance. AR 590.
Koch opined Plaintiff has moderate limitations in the ability
to: communicate and perform effectively in a work setting;
maintain appropriate behavior in a work setting; and set
realistic goals and plan independently. AR 591. Dr. Koch also
found Plaintiff markedly limited in his ability to complete a
normal workday and workweek without interruptions from
psychologically based symptoms, indicating “a very
significant limitation” in this area. AR 591.
assigned “limited weight” to Dr. Koch's
opinion for three reason: (1) Dr. Koch is not a treating
source; (2) the evaluation was “conducted in aid of
[Plaintiff's] application for state benefits such that it
is . . . unclear whether the claimant's presentation at
the time . . . was truly representative of his day-to-day
functioning”; and (3) Dr. Koch appeared to
“overstate the functional effects of
[Plaintiff's] symptoms” given the results of Dr.
Koch's evaluation. AR 30.
the ALJ gave limited weight to Dr. Koch's opinion because
Dr. Koch is not a treating source. AR 30. An examining
physician, by definition, does not have a treating
relationship with a claimant and usually only examines the
claimant one time. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(c)(1), 416.927(c)(1). In general, an ALJ may give
more weight to a treating physician than a non-treating
physician. Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1040-41; see
also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(1),
416.927(c)(1). “When considering an examining
physician's opinion . . . it is the quality, not the
quantity of the examination that is important. Discrediting
an opinion because the examining doctor only saw claimant one
time would effectively discredit most, if not all, examining
doctor opinions.” Yeakey v. Colvin, 2014 WL
3767410, at *6 (W.D. Wash. July 31, 2014). Thus, the
ALJ's decision to discount Dr. Koch's opinion simply
because she is not a treating source is not a specific and
legitimate reason to discount this opinion. See
Lester, 81 F.3d at 830 (an ALJ must give specific and
legitimate reasons, supported by substantial evidence, to
reject an examining physician's opinion).
the ALJ discounted Dr. Koch's opinion because Dr. Koch
conducted the evaluation in aid of Plaintiff's
application for state benefits such that it was
“unclear” whether the evaluation truly
represented Plaintiff's “day-to-day
functioning.” AR 30. An ALJ cannot reject a medical
opinion based on the purpose for which it was obtained.
See Lester, 81 F.3d at 832 (“[t]he purpose for
which medical reports are obtained does not provide a
legitimate basis for rejecting them”); see also
Reddick, 157 F.3d at 726-727 (rejecting an ALJ's
assertion that a physician was biased in favor of a claimant
where “nothing in the record” showed the
physician lacked objectivity). Therefore, to the extent the
ALJ rejected Dr. Koch's opinion ...