United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
A. TSUCHIDA, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Erin R. seeks review of the Commissioner's partially
favorable decision denying her application for Disability
Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) while finding her
eligible for Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”). She contends that the ALJ erred in
evaluating the medical expert's testimony and in
establishing the onset date of her disability. Dkt. 10. The
Court recommends the Commissioner's decision be
AFFIRMED and the case
DISMISSED with prejudice.
is currently 47 years old, has a high school education, and
has worked as a claims clerk. Tr. 121, 160, 298. She applied
for DIB in February 2014 and SSI in 2015, alleging disability
as of September 1, 2012, in both applications; her date last
insured for purposes of DIB was March 31, 2014. Tr. 36, 298,
300. After her applications were denied initially and on
appeal, the ALJ conducted an initial hearing in April 2016
and a supplemental hearing in November 2016. Tr. 36. On
December 9, 2016, the ALJ issued a partially favorable
decision, finding plaintiff disabled beginning on April 21,
2014, but not disabled before that date. Tr. 36-50. The ALJ
therefore found that plaintiff was eligible to receive SSI
beginning on April 21, 2014, but, as she became disabled
after her date last insured, her application for DIB was
denied. Id. The Appeals Council denied
plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's
decision the Commissioner's final decision. Tr. 3.
the five-step disability evaluation process,  the ALJ found
that since the alleged onset date, plaintiff had not engaged
in substantial gainful activity and she had the following
severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar
and cervical spine and left carpal tunnel syndrome. Tr. 39.
The ALJ found that prior to April 21, 2014, plaintiff did not
have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled the requirements of a listed
impairment. Tr. 41. The ALJ found that prior to April
21, 2014, plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to
perform sedentary work with additional limitations. Tr. 42.
The ALJ found that prior to April 21, 2014, plaintiff was
capable of performing her past relevant work as a claims
clerk, and, in the alternative, she was capable of performing
other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national
economy. Tr. 46-47. The ALJ found that, beginning on April
21, 2014, the severity of plaintiff's impairments equaled
the criteria of listing 1.04, disorders of the spine. Tr. 47.
The ALJ therefore found that plaintiff was not disabled prior
to April 21, 2014, but became disabled on that date. Tr. 49.
Dr. Hanson's testimony
argues that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of the
medical expert, Jeffrey Hanson, M.D. Dkt. 10 at 1. Dr. Hanson
testified at the supplemental hearing in November 2016. The
ALJ asked Dr. Hanson to address two time periods, the period
from September 2012 through March 31, 2014, and the period
beginning on April 1, 2014, and continuing through the date
of the hearing. Tr. 150. Dr. Hanson testified that the latter
time period was better documented in the record and, after
discussing the imaging and examination findings from that
time period, he opined that because of cervical stenosis,
lumbar stenosis, and her various other medical problems,
plaintiff was at a listing level of impairment during that
time period. Tr. 150-52.
Hanson testified that the earlier time period was less
documented in the record and that, while her impairments
“didn't happen overnight, ” it wasn't
“absolutely documentable from the record [during] that
first timeframe that these problems were either diagnosed,
recognized, or causing a lot of symptoms.” Tr. 152-53.
He opined that she was developing symptoms during that time
period, but there was not enough evidence in the record to
say with “absolute certainty” that plaintiff met
or equaled a listing level impairment, although he stated:
“I suspect between her neck and her lower back she
did.” Id. Tr.153. When the ALJ asked what RFC
Dr. Hanson would give for the first timeframe, Dr. Hanson
gave essentially the modified sedentary RFC the ALJ adopted
in the decision. Tr. 154-55. Upon cross-examination, Dr.
Hanson agreed that it was reasonable to presume that the
conditions he identified as being present and symptomatic on
April 1, 2014, were also present and symptomatic on March 31,
2014. Tr. 156.
gave significant weight to Dr. Hanson's opinion, finding
that as an expert witness, he had knowledge of the Social
Security disability programs and access to the medical
evidence of record when he testified, and that his opinion
was consistent with the medical evidence, which showed
minimal treatment and did not show the clinical signs and
diagnostic imaging necessary to conclude that plaintiff's
impairments met or equaled a listing before April 2014. Tr.
45. The ALJ gave great weight to Dr. Hanson's opinion of
quite significant functional limitations before that date,
finding that the limitations Dr. Hanson opined
“generously accommodate” plaintiff's symptoms
of pain and other stated limitations. Id.
argues that the ALJ improperly rejected Dr. Hanson's
opinion that plaintiff's impairments medically equaled a
listing before April 1, 2014. Dkt. 10 at 6. Her argument
hinges on Dr. Hanson's testimony that while there was not
enough evidence in the record to state with certainty that
she equaled a listing at that time, he suspected she did. The
ALJ did not discuss this statement in the decision, which
plaintiff characterizes as rejecting a medical opinion
without giving a reason. Dkt. 10 at 7.
must give a valid reason for rejecting a medical opinion.
See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir.
1996). But the particular statement plaintiff identifies,
taken in the context of Dr. Hanson's testimony as a
whole, was not a “medical opinion” of the kind
the ALJ must explicitly accept or reject. Rather, Dr. Hanson
stated that he suspected plaintiff's impairments equaled
a listing before April 2014 in the context of explaining the
reasons why he could not give a definitive medical
opinion about that time period-namely, that the medical
evidence from that time was insufficient to support such an
opinion. Dr. Hanson's suspicion was not a medical opinion
and the ALJ was not required to treat it as such. The ALJ
accounted for Dr. Hanson's testimony by adopting the
functional limitations Dr. Hanson opined as to the period
before April 1, 2014. The fact that the ALJ did not recount
this particular statement does not undermine the ALJ's
assessment of Dr. Hanson's testimony as a whole. The
ALJ's evaluation of Dr. Hanson's opinion was rational
and this court may not disturb it. Thomas v.
Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).