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Anna B. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 24, 2019

ANNA 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 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. 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 discount medical opinion evidence from Dr. Joanne Gartenberg, M.D. Had the ALJ properly considered Dr. Gartenberg's opinion, the ALJ may have found Plaintiff had severe mental impairments at Step Two. Further, 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 Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On October 28, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of November 6, 2013. See Dkt. 11, Administrative Record (“AR”) 10. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 10. ALJ Eric S. Basse held a hearing on December 7, 2016. AR 38-85. In a decision dated June 8, 2017, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 7-32. 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.

         In Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by failing to: (1) properly consider medical opinion evidence from treating physician Dr. Gartenberg and non-examining physician Dr. Patricia Kraft, Ph.D., and as a result, properly evaluate Plaintiff's mental impairments at Step Two; and (2) state any clear and convincing reason for rejecting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. Dkt. 13, pp. 3-10.

         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 evaluated the medical opinion evidence.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to properly consider medical opinion evidence from treating physician Dr. Gartenberg and non-examining physician Dr. Kraft. Dkt. 13, pp. 3-9.

         In assessing an acceptable medical source, 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)).

         A. Dr. Gartenberg

         Plaintiff contests the ALJ's consideration of Dr. Gartenberg's medical opinion. Dkt. 13, pp. 4-7. Dr. Gartenberg, one of Plaintiff's treating physicians, completed a medical source statement regarding Plaintiff's mental limitations on June 21, 2016. AR 707-09. Dr. Gartenberg opined Plaintiff has several limitations in mental functioning, including a moderate limitation - defined as an inability to remain on task 15-20% of the time - in her ability to remember locations and work-like procedures, and understand and remember detailed instructions. AR 707-08. Dr. Gartenberg found Plaintiff moderately impaired in her ability to carry out detailed instructions and work in coordination with or proximity to others without ...


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