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Zoe B. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 15, 2019

ZOE B., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          DAVID W. CHRISTEL UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of Defendant's denial of Plaintiff's 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. 2.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when he failed to provide any specific, legitimate reason, supported by substantial evidence, to reject medical opinion evidence from Dr. Peter A. Weiss, Ph.D. Had the ALJ properly considered Dr. Weiss's opinion, 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 Social Security Commissioner (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On August 24, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging disability as of December 9, 2014. See Dkt. 10, Administrative Record (“AR”) 15. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 15. ALJ John Michaelsen held a hearing on July 10, 2017. AR 36-62. In a decision dated September 27, 2017, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 12-35. 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.

         In Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by failing to: (1) properly consider Dr. Weiss's medical opinion; and (2) provide legally sufficient reasons to reject Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony and two lay witness opinions. Dkt. 21, pp. 3-13. Plaintiff requests, as a result of the ALJ's alleged errors, the Court remand this case for an award of benefits. Id. at p. 13.

         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 Dr. Weiss's medical opinion.

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons to reject Dr. Weiss's opinion. Dkt. 21, pp. 9-12.

         An 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)).

         Dr. Weiss performed a psychological evaluation of Plaintiff on May 18, 2015. AR 313-19. Dr. Weiss's evaluation included a review of a prior psychological evaluation, a clinical interview, a mental status examination, and a Personality Assessment Inventory (“PAI”). See AR 313-19. Dr. Weiss opined Plaintiff has moderate limitations in two areas of basic activities: the ability to understand, remember, and persist in tasks by following detailed instructions; and the ability to learn new tasks. AR 315. Dr. Weiss found Plaintiff markedly limited in her ability to adapt to changes in a routine work setting. AR 315. Further, Dr. Weiss determined Plaintiff has several severe limitations, such as in her 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 315. Dr. Weiss opined Plaintiff is also severely limited in her ability to perform activities within a schedule, maintain ...


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