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Aaron S. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 23, 2019

AARON S., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

          BRIAN A. TSUCHIDA CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Aaron S. seeks review of the denial of his applications for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. He contends that the ALJ erroneously evaluated the medical evidence, the lay witness evidence, and his own testimony. Dkt.11. The Court REVERSES the Commissioner's final decision and REMANDS the matter for further administrative proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is currently 46 years old, has an 11th grade education, and has worked as a maintenance mechanic, industrial truck operator, and yard worker. Tr. 44, 61, 200. He applied for benefits in September 2011, alleging disability as of August 2015. Tr. 200, 207. He later amended his application to a closed period ending in July 2017, when he returned to work. Tr. 40. After his applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, the ALJ conducted a hearing and, on January 5, 2018, issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 15-29. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision. Tr. 1.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period; he had the following severe impairments: headaches, left shoulder disorder, spine disorder, seizure disorder, duodenal ulcer, and neurocognitive disorder; and these impairments did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[2] Tr. 17-18. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work, with additional postural, reaching, and environmental limitations, and he was limited to jobs with a reasoning level of 2 or less, performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, but not at a production rate pace, and tolerating only occasional changes in a routine work setting. Tr. 20-21. The ALJ found that plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work, but there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could have performed, he was not disabled during the relevant period. Tr. 28-29.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Dr. Meharg

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion of Stephen Meharg, Ph.D. Dkt. 11 at 3. The ALJ must give specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting a treating or examining doctor's opinion that is contradicted by another doctor, and clear and convincing reasons for rejecting a treating or examining doctor's uncontradicted opinion. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1996).

         Dr. Meharg conducted a neuropsychological examination in January 2016. Tr. 541-49. Dr. Meharg expressed some concerns about plaintiff's effort and motivation, noting that plaintiff seemed to make a variety of unusual errors and show rather significant difficulties on otherwise simple tasks. Tr. 545. He also noted that plaintiff was very slow in his responses and took considerable time to deliberate, which Dr. Meharg found to be generally consistent with some of plaintiff's vague and unexpected difficulties on reasoning tasks during the mental status examination. Id. Dr. Meharg noted that the cognitive study reflected mixed findings with better performance in complex mental tracking and visual capacity memory but weak skills in verbal learning and memory. Tr. 548. He diagnosed mild neurocognitive disorder due to another medical condition, status post resection of cava septum pellucidum 1.8 cm cyst. Tr. 549. He opined that plaintiff would have moderate difficulties in learning and retention of new procedures, including assigned tasks and work processes; he was likely to show rapid forgetting of verbal instructions, although he seemed capable of memorizing visual materials in adequate fashion; and he retained some cognitive resources in the midst of more selective deficits of verbal memory. Id. He opined that plaintiff was capable of managing his own funds. Id.

         Dr. Meharg completed a medical source assessment in August 2016. Tr. 611-12. He opined that plaintiff would have noticeable difficulty from 11 to 20% of the workday or workweek in the following areas: understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions, maintain attention and concentration for extended periods of time, maintain regular attendance, complete a normal workday or workweek without interruption from psychological symptoms, perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods, and travel in unfamiliar places or use public transportation. Tr. 611-12. He opined plaintiff would have noticeable difficulty up to 10% of the time in numerous other functional areas. Id. He opined that plaintiff showed mild memory impairment along with several areas of intact functioning. Id.

         The ALJ gave great weight to Dr. Meharg's January 2016 opinion that plaintiff could manage his own funds, finding it consistent with the unremarkable mental status examinations in the file and with Dr. Meharg's own examination findings. Tr. 26. But the ALJ gave Dr. Meharg's August 2016 opinion little weight because Dr. Meharg wrote it seven months after his examination and it was unclear what evidence Dr. Meharg used to support his findings. Tr. 27. The ALJ also found that the opinion was internally inconsistent, finding that the limitations Dr. Meharg opined were inconsistent with his statement that plaintiff showed only mild memory loss and had several areas of intact functioning, and that the opinion was excessive in comparison to the findings from Dr. Meharg's earlier examination. Id.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to address Dr. Meharg's opinion from January 2016 that plaintiff was likely to show rapid forgetting of verbal instructions, as the ALJ did not indicate the weight the placed upon this opinion or include it in the RFC finding or the hypothetical to the vocational expert. Dkt. 11 at 4. The court agrees. The ALJ must provide valid reasons to reject a medical opinion. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31. But here, although the ALJ included a limitation to jobs with a reasoning level of 2 or less and to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, the ALJ failed to include a limitation on the ability to remember verbal instructions and did not give a reason for rejecting this limitation. This omission renders the RFC finding, and the vocational expert's testimony based on it, invalid.

         Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ erred by giving little weight to Dr. Meharg's August 2016 assessment, arguing that the ALJ failed to explain the significance of the fact that Dr. Meharg wrote the opinion seven months after his examination and that it is clear that Dr. Meharg based his opinion on the examination he conducted. Dkt. 11 at 5. Plaintiff also ...


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