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Jessaca L. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 7, 2019

JESSACA L., Plaintiff,


          Theresa L. Fricke, United States Magistrate Judge

         Jessaca L. has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of her applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. The parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73; Local Rule MJR 13. For the reasons below, the undersigned reverses defendant's decision to deny benefits and remands for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits in September 2014, alleging she became disabled as of April 15, 2014. Dkt. 9, Administrative Record (AR) 15. Both applications were denied on initial and reconsideration administrative review. Id. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Id. Plaintiff appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. AR 45-69. The ALJ determined that plaintiff could perform her past work as a personnel clerk and therefore is not disabled. AR 15-36. The ALJ also determined that there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform, and that she is not disabled for that reason, as well. AR 35. Plaintiff filed a complaint with this Court, seeking reversal and remand for further proceedings.


         The Court will uphold an ALJ's decision unless: (1) the decision is based on legal error; or (2) the decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017). Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). This requires “more than a mere scintilla, ” though “less than a preponderance” of the evidence. Id.; Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674-75 (9th Cir. 2017).

         The Court must consider the administrative record as a whole. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014). The Court is required to weigh both the evidence that supports, and evidence that does not support, the ALJ's conclusion. Id. The Court may not affirm the decision of the ALJ for a reason upon which the ALJ did not rely. Id. Only the reasons identified by the ALJ are considered in the scope of the Court's review. Id.

         “If the evidence admits of more than one rational interpretation, ” that decision must be upheld. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984). That is, “[w]here there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, ” the Court “must affirm the decision actually made.” Allen, 749 F.2d at 579 (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).


         Did the ALJ err in weighing the medical opinion evidence?


         The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At step four of that process, a claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) is assessed to determine whether past relevant work can be performed, and, if necessary, at step five to determine whether an adjustment to other work can be made. Kennedy v. Colvin, 738 F.3d 1172, 1175 (9th Cir. 2013). At step five, the Commissioner has the burden of proof, which can be met by showing a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1099 (9th Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).

         A. Opinions on Mental-Health Limitations

         The ALJ erred in rejecting the medical opinions of two examining psychologists and a treating therapist regarding plaintiff's mental-health limitations. The ALJ's reasons are not supported by substantial evidence

         An ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or examining physician. Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 675 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008)). Even when a treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted, an ALJ may only reject that opinion “by providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence.” Id.

         In general, more weight is given to a treating physician's opinion than to the opinions of those who do not treat the claimant. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). On the other hand, an ALJ need not accept the opinion of a treating physician if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by medical findings or by the record as a whole. Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004).

         Although an ALJ must thus provide at least specific and legitimate reasons to reject the opinion of an “acceptable medical source” who treated or examined the claimant, “acceptable” sources include “only licensed physicians and certain other qualified specialists.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1513(a), 416.913(a) (versions effective September 3, 2013 to March 26, 2017). Licensed counselors are not “acceptable medical sources” under the regulations in effect at the time of plaintiff's application. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1513(d); McGee v. Astrue, 368 Fed.Appx. 825, 828 (9th Cir. 2010). Because these sources “are not entitled to the same deference” as acceptable medical sources, the ALJ needs to give only “reasons germane” to the source to discount its testimony. Molina, 674 F.3d at 1111 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527; Social Security Ruling (SSR) 06-03p).

         1. Examining Psychologist Russell M. Bragg, Ph.D.

         Dr. Bragg performed a psychological evaluation of plaintiff in July 2014. AR 335-40. He reviewed her medical record and conducted a clinical interview and mental-status examination. Id. He observed that plaintiff showed a normal rate of ...

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