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Michael N. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 6, 2019

MICHAEL N., Plaintiff,


          Ronald B. Leighton, United States District Judge.


         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Michael N.'s Complaint (Dkt. 3) for review of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of his application for disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff has severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, lumbago, sciatica, hip abnormalities, left rotator cuff syndrome, chronic pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, osteoarthritis, and spondylolisthesis. Admin. Record (“AR”) (Dkt. 7) at 50. Plaintiff applied for disability benefits on September 11, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of January 14, 2015. See Id. at 218-19. Plaintiff's application was denied on initial administrative review and on reconsideration. Id. at 112-25, 127-43.

         At Plaintiff's request, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) David Johnson held a hearing on Plaintiff's claims. Id. at 72-110. On November 15, 2017, ALJ Johnson issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and denying his claim for benefits. Id. at 48-65.

         After the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff submitted additional medical evidence to the Appeals Council. See Id. at 8-39. That evidence documented Plaintiff's treatment from May 7-10, 2018, including back surgery. See id.

         On September 21, 2018, the Appeals Council issued a notice denying review. Id. at 1-4. The Appeals Council determined that Plaintiff's newly submitted evidence did not relate to the period of disability at issue, and did not affect the ALJ's decision. Id. at 2. Plaintiff then sought review before this Court. See Compl.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of examining psychologist Alexander Patterson, Psy.D., and the Appeals Council erred in rejecting Plaintiff's newly submitted evidence. Pl. Op. Br. (Dkt. 9) at 1.


         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 Dr. Patterson's Opinions

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in rejecting Dr. Patterson's medical opinions. Pl. Op. Br. at 4-11. The Court agrees.

         Dr. Patterson examined Plaintiff on January 8, 2016. AR at 375-79. Dr. Patterson opined that Plaintiff had normal reasoning, judgment, understanding, and memory. Id. at 379. He opined that Plaintiff's ability to sustain concentration and persist were mildly impaired due to anxiety. Id. Dr. Patterson opined that Plaintiff's interpersonal functioning and adaptation skills were severely impaired. Id. In terms of work capabilities, Dr. Patterson opined that Plaintiff would have difficulty maintaining consistent attendance and timeliness; completing work-related tasks; maintaining relationships with coworkers, supervisors, and the public; and managing normal work-related stress. Id.

         The ALJ gave Dr. Patterson's opinions little weight. Id. at 58-59. The ALJ reasoned that (1) the limits to which Dr. Patterson opined were due to exacerbations of Plaintiffs conditions that did not persist over 12 months, (2) Dr. Patterson's opinions conflicted with those of examining doctor Philip Gibson, Ph.D., and Dr. Gibson had the benefit of seeing more recent objective medical evidence, and (3) Dr. Patterson's opinions were inconsistent with the overall medical evidence. Id.

         To reject the opinions of an examining doctor that are contradicted, the ALJ must provide “specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1995) (citing Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1042). The ALJ can satisfy this requirement “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d ...

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