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Gina A. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 6, 2019

GINA A., Plaintiff,


          Ronald B. Leighton, United States District Judge.


         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Complaint (Dkt. 4) for review of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits. This is the second time this matter has been before the Court. See Admin. Record (“AR”) (Dkt. 8) at 557-73.

         Plaintiff has severe impairments of inflammatory arthropathy, degenerative disc disease, obesity, affective disorder, anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), and posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). Id. at 535. Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits on April 12, 2013, alleging disability as of that date.[1] Id. at 35-36, 169. Plaintiff's application was denied on initial review and on reconsideration. Id. at 83-93, 95-105.

         At Plaintiff's request, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Kimberly Boyce held a hearing on Plaintiff's claims. Id. at 28-81. On April 9, 2015, ALJ Boyce issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and denying her claim for benefits. Id. at 10-22. The Appeals Council denied review. Id. at 3-5. Plaintiff then sought review before this Court. See Id. at 557-59.

         On March 31, 2017, Magistrate Judge Karen L. Strombom issued a decision reversing and remanding the ALJ's decision for further administrative proceedings. Id. at 560-73. Magistrate Judge Strombom held that ALJ Boyce erred in evaluating the medical opinions of examining doctors Monica Pilarc, Ph.D., and Gene McConnachie, Ph.D. Id. at 563-66. Plaintiff also challenged the ALJ's evaluation of the medical opinions of John Haroian, Ph.D., but Magistrate Judge Strombom did not address this issue. See Id. at 561. Magistrate Judge Strombom further held that ALJ Boyce erred in rejecting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. Id. at 566-72.

         On remand, ALJ Boyce held a second hearing. Id. at 1143-89. ALJ Boyce issued her second decision on July 25, 2018. Id. at 532-50. ALJ Boyce again found that Plaintiff was not disabled and denied her claim for benefits. Id. The Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction, so the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1484(d).

         Plaintiff argues that ALJ Boyce erred in evaluating (a) Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony and (b) the medical opinion evidence. Pl. Op. Br. (Dkt. 11) at 1. Plaintiff asks the Court to remand this matter for further administrative proceedings. Id. at 18.


         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 Did Not Harmfully Err in Rejecting Plaintiff's Testimony

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in rejecting her subjective symptom testimony. Pl. Op. Br. at 16-18. Plaintiff focuses her argument on the ALJ's analysis of her testimony regarding her mental symptoms, so the Court will do the same.

         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 have caused some degree of the symptoms; she does not have to show that the impairment could 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 have caused the symptoms she alleged. AR at 537.

         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. Fair v. Bowen, 885 F.2d 597, 604 (9th Cir. 1989). As long as the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, 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 evidence of malingering here. AR at 545. In particular, ALJ Boyce noted that Plaintiff's responses to a psychological test administered by Dr. Pilarc “suggested a tendency to magnify [Plaintiff's] illness, and an inclination to complain.” Id. Affirmative evidence of malingering-standing alone-can support an ALJ's rejection of the plaintiff's testimony. See Schow v. Astrue, 272 Fed.Appx. 647, 651 (9th Cir. 2008) (The existence of “affirmative evidence suggesting malingering vitiates the clear and convincing standard of review”) (internal quotation marks omitted). The ALJ continued on in her analysis, giving six other reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's symptom testimony. AR at ...

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