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Tina P. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 20, 2019

TINA P., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DENIAL OF BENEFITS

          Ronald B. Leighton, United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Complaint (Dkt. 1) for review of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of her application for disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff has severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the spine, carpal tunnel syndrome, and obesity. Admin. Record (“AR”) (Dkt. 5) at 18. Plaintiff applied for disability benefits on March 26, 2014 alleging a disability onset date of December 22, 2009. See Id. at 75, 154-55.

         Plaintiff's application was denied on initial review and on reconsideration. Id. at 75-83, 86-99. At Plaintiff's request, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) M.J. Adams held a hearing on Plaintiff's claims. Id. at 30-74. On July 25, 2016, ALJ Adams issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and denying her claim for benefits. Id. at 16-24. The Appeals Council denied review. Id. at 1-3. Plaintiff then sought review before this Court. See Compl.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in (a) rejecting Plaintiff's testimony, (b) evaluating the medical evidence, and (c) evaluating the vocational expert's testimony in connection with step five of the disability evaluation process. See Pl. Op. Br. (Dkt. 7) at 1. Plaintiff argues that the Court should remand this matter for an award of benefits. Id.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the 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). The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving any other ambiguities that might exist. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). While the Court is required to examine the record as a whole, it may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         A. The ALJ Harmfully Erred in Rejecting Plaintiff's Testimony

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in rejecting her subjective symptom testimony. Pl. Op. Br. at 11-13. Plaintiff testified that she had difficulty sitting, standing, and walking for much time. See AR at 42-55, 183, 222. Plaintiff testified that she had difficulty lifting, carrying, and using her hands. See Id. at 58, 183, 222. She testified that she took medication for anxiety and depression, but was not in mental health counseling. Id.

         The Ninth Circuit has “established a two-step analysis for determining the extent to which a claimant's symptom testimony must be credited.” Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 678 (9th Cir. 2017). The ALJ must first determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an impairment that “‘could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged.'” Id. (quoting Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1014-15 (9th Cir. 2014)). At this stage, the claimant need only show that the impairment could reasonably have caused some degree of the symptoms; she does not have to show that the impairment could reasonably be expected to cause the severity of the symptoms alleged. Id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff met this step because her medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the symptoms she alleged. AR at 20.

         If the claimant satisfies the first step, and there is no evidence of malingering, the ALJ may only reject the claimant's testimony “‘by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so. This is not an easy requirement to meet.'” Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 678 (quoting Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1014-15). In evaluating the ALJ's determination at this step, the Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Thomas, 278 F.3d at 959). As long as substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, it should stand, even if some of the ALJ's reasons for discrediting a claimant's testimony fail. See Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1148 (9th Cir. 2001).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff's testimony concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms was “not entirely consistent with the entire case record.” AR at 20. The ALJ gave three reasons for discounting Plaintiff's testimony. First, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's testimony was not consistent with the medical evidence. Id. at 20-21. Second, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff left her last job for non-disability-related reasons and had worked for a number of years before her alleged onset date despite the fact that her conditions existed throughout that time. Id. at 21. Third, Plaintiff's testimony was not consistent with her daily activities. Id. at 21.

         The ALJ's first reason for rejecting Plaintiff's testimony fails. An ALJ may reject a claimant's symptom testimony when it is contradicted by the medical evidence. See Carmickle v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 533 F.3d 1155 (“Contradiction with the medical record is a sufficient basis for rejecting the claimant's subjective testimony.”) (citing Johnson v. Shalala, 60 F.3d 1428, 1434 (9th Cir.1995)). But the ALJ must do more than summarize the medical evidence. The ALJ must explain how the medical evidence contradicts the Plaintiff's testimony. See Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 421 (9th Cir. 1988). ALJ Adams described Plaintiff's overall treatment history, but never directly confronted how that contradicted Plaintiff's testimony. See AR at 20-21. And the ALJ's recitation of the medical evidence does not reveal any obvious contradictions. See id.

         The ALJ's next reason for rejecting Plaintiff's symptom testimony also fails. An ALJ may consider the claimant's work history and the extent to which she was able to work with her impairments in evaluating the claimant's testimony. See Gregory v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 664, 667 (9th Cir. 1988). But the ALJ's conclusion must be supported by substantial evidence. See Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 674. The ALJ pointed out that Plaintiff reported significant back problems since 1998 but worked until the end of 2009. AR at 21, 1005. Plaintiff's back problems were only one aspect of her alleged impairments; she also alleged shoulder and neck issues, among other things. See ...


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