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
application 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 for discounting the opinion of examining
psychologist Dr. Widlan. Had the ALJ properly considered this
opinion, the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
may have included additional limitations. The ALJ's error
is therefore harmful, 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, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging a
disability onset date of June 16, 2012. See Dkt. 9,
Administrative Record (“AR”) 22, 200-06.
Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on
reconsideration. AR 99-107, 111-17. ALJ Stephanie Martz held
a hearing on November 1, 2016. AR 47-69. In a decision dated
January 13, 2017, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to not be
disabled. AR 19-32. Plaintiff requested a review of his case
by the Social Security Appeals Council (“AC”) on
January 23, 2017. AR 194. On February 7, 2018, the AC granted
Plaintiff's request for review, and stated that it
planned to find him disabled as of January 13, 2017, the date
of the ALJ's decision. AR 195-96.
adopted the ALJ's findings for the period before the date
of the ALJ's decision but found that based on vocational
factors including Plaintiff's age, he was disabled as of
January 13, 2017. AR 197. The AC issued a partially favorable
decision on September 6, 2018. AR 1-8. The AC adopted the
ALJ's findings with respect to steps one through five of
the sequential evaluation. AR 5-6. However, the AC found that
on the date of the hearing decision, Plaintiff was within
three months of attaining age 45 and a change in age category
from that of a “younger individual age 18-44” to
that of a “younger individual age 45-49.” AR 6.
The AC noted that it in making determinations regarding
disability, the AC does not apply the claimant's age
“mechanically”, and that if Plaintiff had
attained age 45, he would be found disabled pursuant to
Medical-Vocational Rule 201.17. AR 6. The AC found that
Plaintiff's age should not be applied mechanically given
Plaintiff's additional vocational impediments, including
a lack of prior work activity, an inability to communicate in
English, and non-exertional limitations. AR 6. Applying the
borderline age policy, the AC found that Plaintiff qualified
as a younger individual age 45-49 as of the hearing decision
date, and was therefore disabled as of January 13, 2017
pursuant to Rule 201.17. AR 7.
Appeals Council decision of September 6, 2018 is the final
agency decision subject to judicial review. See 20
C.F.R. § 416.1481. (“The Appeals Council's
decision, or the decision of the administrative law judge if
the request for review is denied, is binding unless you or
another party file an action in Federal district court, or
the decision is revised.”); See e.g. Griffin v.
Berryhill, No. C17-308-RAJ, 2017 WL 5668040 (W.D.
Washington, Nov. 27, 2017) (citing Sims v. Apfel,
530 U.S. 103, 106-7 (2000) (“SSA regulations provide
that, if the Appeals Council grants review of a claim, then
the decision that the Council issues is the
Commissioner's final decision”).
Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ
erred by failing to properly assess the opinion of
consultative psychological examiner David Widlan, Ph.D. Dkt.
11, pp. 4-7. Plaintiff requests the Court remand his claims
for an award of benefits. Id. at 8.
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 considered the medical opinion
argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider an opinion
from examining psychologist Dr. Widlan. Dkt. 11, pp. 4-7.
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 ...