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Erin R. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 4, 2019

ERIN R., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          BRIAN A. TSUCHIDA, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff 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.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff 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 ALJ'S DECISION

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] 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.[2] 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.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Dr. Hanson's testimony

         Plaintiff 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.

         Dr. 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.

         The ALJ 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         The ALJ 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).

         B. ...


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