United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S
DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS
W. Christel United States Magistrate Judge.
filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for
judicial review of Defendant's denial of Plaintiff's
applications for supplemental security income
(“SSI”). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c),
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and Local Rule MJR 13, the
parties have consented to have this matter heard by the
undersigned Magistrate Judge. See Dkt. 2.
considering the record, the Court concludes the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when she
failed to provide specific, legitimate reasons, supported by
substantial evidence, to discount opinion evidence from Dr.
William D. Weiss, Ph.D.; Dr. Holly Petaja, Ph.D.; and Dr.
David T. Morgan, Ph.D. Had the ALJ properly considered this
medical opinion evidence, the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) may have included additional limitations.
The ALJ's errors are therefore not harmless, and this
matter is reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of
42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Social Security Commissioner
(“Commissioner”) for further proceedings
consistent with this Order.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
15, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging
disability as of September 5, 2008. See Dkt. 9,
Administrative Record (“AR”) 15. The application
was denied upon initial administrative review and on
reconsideration. See AR 15. ALJ S. Pines held a
hearing on April 12, 2017. AR 29-44. In a decision dated
August 10, 2017, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not
disabled. AR 12-28. Plaintiff's request for review of the
ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, making
the ALJ's decision the final decision of the
Commissioner. See AR 1-6; 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.
Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ
erred by failing to: (1) properly consider medical opinion
evidence from Drs. Weiss, Petaja, and Morgan, as well as
treatment notes from Dr. Jennifer McDonald, M.D., and other
treating sources; (2) state clear and convincing reasons to
discount Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony and
germane reasons to discount lay witness testimony from
Plaintiff's case manager, Pam Hunt; and (3) provide an
RFC assessment and Step Five findings supported by
substantial evidence. Dkt. 13, pp. 3-18. Plaintiff requests
the Court remand this matter for an award benefits.
Id. at pp. 18-19.
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this 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)
(citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th
Whether the ALJ properly assessed the medical opinion
challenges the ALJ's consideration of medical opinion
evidence from Drs. Weiss, Petaja, Morgan, McDonald, and
treatment notes from several treating sources. Dkt. 13, pp.
assessing an acceptable medical source, an ALJ must provide
“clear and convincing” reasons for rejecting the
uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or examining
physician. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th
Cir. 1995) (citing Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502,
506 (9th Cir. 1990)); Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418,
422 (9th Cir. 1988)). When a treating or examining
physician's opinion is contradicted, the opinion can be
rejected “for specific and legitimate reasons that are
supported by substantial evidence in the record.”
Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31 (citing Andrews v.
Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1043 (9th Cir. 1995); Murray
v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1983)). The ALJ
can accomplish this by “setting out a detailed and
thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical
evidence, stating [her] interpretation thereof, and making
findings.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715,
725 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing Magallanes v. Bowen, 881
F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989)).
Drs. Weiss and Petaja
first asserts the ALJ improperly considered medical opinion
evidence from Drs. Weiss and Petaja. Dkt. 13, pp. 3-6.
20, 2014, Dr. Weiss conducted a psychological/psychiatric
evaluation of Plaintiff. AR 241-45. Dr. Weiss's
evaluation included reviewing social service case notes on
Plaintiff and conducting a clinical interview and mental
status examination. See AR 241-45. Dr. Weiss
described several clinical findings in his report, such as
about Plaintiff's manic episodes and depression.
See AR 242. Dr. Weiss diagnosed Plaintiff with
Bipolar I Disorder, “severe, with psychotic features,
”; polysubstance dependence; and borderline personality
disorder. See AR 243.
Weiss opined Plaintiff is moderately limited in his ability
to perform routine tasks without special supervision, make
simple work-related decisions, be aware of normal hazards and
take appropriate precautions, and set realistic goals and
plan independently. AR 244. Further, Dr. Weiss determined
Plaintiff has marked limitations in several areas of basic
work activities, such as in his ability to understand,
remember, and persist in tasks by following very short and
simple instructions; learn new tasks; adapt to changes in a
routine work setting; and ask simple questions or request
assistance. AR 243-44. Dr. Weiss found Plaintiff markedly
impaired in his ability to communicate and perform
effectively in a work setting, maintain appropriate behavior
in a work setting, and complete a normal workday and workweek
without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms. AR
244. Lastly, Dr. Weiss opined Plaintiff is severely limited
in two areas of basic work activities: the ability to
understand, remember, and persist in tasks by following
detailed instructions; and the ability to perform activities
within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be
punctual within customary tolerances without special
supervision. AR 244.
November 17, 2014, Dr. Petaja conducted a review of the
record in this matter. AR 353-55. Dr. Petaja determined
Plaintiff has diagnoses of bipolar disorder and borderline
personality disorder. AR 355. Dr. Petaja opined Plaintiff is
significantly limited in his ability to learn new tasks,
adapt to changes in a routine work setting, make simple
work-related decisions, and set realistic goals and plan
independently. AR 354. Dr. Petaja found Plaintiff has several
marked limitations, including in his ability to understand,
remember, and persist in tasks by following very short and
simple instructions; perform activities within a schedule,
maintain regular attendance and be punctual within customary
tolerances; and perform routine tasks without special
supervision. AR 354. Additionally, Dr. Petaja found Plaintiff
markedly limited in his ability to be aware of normal hazards
and take appropriate precautions, ask simple questions, or
request assistance, and communicate and perform effectively
in a work setting. AR 354. Dr. Petaja also determined
Plaintiff has marked limitations in his ability to maintain