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Bernadette F. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 3, 2019

BERNADETTE F., 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 her 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. 2.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when she failed to provide specific, legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence for rejecting medical opinion evidence from Dr. Erum Khaleeq, M.D. and other examining physicians. 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 Social Security Commissioner (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This case has a lengthy procedural history. On December 13, 2012, Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and DIB, alleging disability as of June 1, 2012. See Dkt. 10, Administrative Record (“AR”) 251-257, 258-264. Her applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 148-154, 155-162, 165-169, 170-177. A hearing was held before ALJ Cynthia D. Rosa on February 5, 2014. AR 54-85. In a decision dated May 6, 2014, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 19-48. On November 20, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. See AR 1-7. Plaintiff appealed ALJ Rosa's decision to the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington (“Court”), which reversed and remanded the decision on August 3, 2016. See AR 763-781. On December 7, 2016, the Appeals Council issued a remand order vacating ALJ Rosa's decision and remanding the case for further proceedings consistent with the Court's order.[1] AR 782-786.

         On January 23, 2018, ALJ Rebecca L. Jones[2] held the present hearing. AR 663-720. On May 2, 2018, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to not be disabled. AR 615-654. The ALJ's May 2, 2018 decision is the final decision of the Commissioner.

         In Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by failing to properly assess: (1) opinion evidence from Drs. Ruddell, Sanchez, Khaleeq, Wingate, Lewis, Thompson, and Trowbridge; and (2) Plaintiff's subjective claims. Dkt. 17, pp. 1-19. Plaintiff requests the Court remand her claims for an award of benefits due to the ALJ's alleged errors. Id. at p. 18.

         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 the medical opinion evidence.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider opinion evidence from Drs. Ruddell, Sanchez, Khaleeq, Wingate, Lewis, Thompson, and Trowbridge. Dkt. 17, pp. 1-17.

         In assessing an acceptable medical source - such as a medical doctor - 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. 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. Ruddell and Dr. Sanchez

         Plaintiff maintains that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasons for rejecting portions of an opinion from Dr. Ruddell. Dkt. 17, pp. 4-8. Plaintiff further maintains that the ALJ did not provide sufficient reasons for rejecting an opinion from Dr. Sanchez, who based her opinion on a review of Dr. Ruddell's evaluation. Dkt. 17, p. 9.

         Dr. Ruddell conducted a psychological/psychiatric evaluation of Plaintiff in November 2016. AR 1192-1196. As part of her evaluation, Dr. Ruddell conducted a clinical interview and a mental status examination. See AR 1192-1196. Based on this evaluation, Dr. Ruddell opined that Plaintiff had marked limitations in her ability to adapt to changes in a routine work setting. AR 1194. Dr. Ruddell also determined that Plaintiff had marked limitations in maintaining appropriate behavior in a work setting, completing a normal work day and work week without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms, and setting realistic goals and planning independently. AR 1194. Dr. Ruddell further opined that Plaintiff had severe limitations in her ability to learn new tasks. AR 1194.

         In December 2016, Dr. Sanchez performed a review of the medical evidence for the Washington State Department of Social & Health Services. AR 1197-1199. Dr. Sanchez reviewed the results of Dr. Ruddell's November 2016 evaluation of Plaintiff, and re-affirmed Dr.

         Ruddell's findings concerning Plaintiff's marked and severe work-related mental limitations. AR 1198-1199.

         The ALJ gave little weight to the opinions of Dr. Ruddell and Dr. Sanchez regarding Plaintiff's marked and severe limitations, reasoning that: (1) the opinions were not consistent with the record as a whole; and (2) ...


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