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Jennifer J. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 18, 2019

JENNIFER J., Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of Defendant's denial of Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). 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.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when she failed to provide specific, legitimate reasons, supported by substantial evidence in the record, to discount medical opinion evidence from Dr. Peter N. Moore, Psy.D. Had the ALJ properly considered Dr. Moore's opinion, the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) may have included additional limitations. The ALJ's error is 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.


         On December 18, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of July 11, 2009.[1] See Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (“AR”) 17. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 17. ALJ Laura Valente held a hearing on May 23, 2017. AR 37-84. In a decision dated November 29, 2017, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 14-34. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See AR 1-8; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         In Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by failing to: (1) provide specific and legitimate reasons to discount Dr. Moore's medical opinion; and (2) state clear and convincing reasons to reject Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony about her mental health limitations. Dkt. 10, pp. 3-10.


         Pursuant 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 Cir. 1999)).


         I. Whether the ALJ properly considered Dr. Moore's opinion.

         Plaintiff first argues the ALJ erred by failing to provide any specific and legitimate reason to reject medical opinion evidence from examining physician Dr. Moore. Dkt. 10, pp. 3-7.

         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)).

         Dr. Moore conducted a psychological evaluation of Plaintiff on September 17, 2015. AR 724-27. As part of his evaluation, Dr. Moore reviewed prior psychological evaluations and records, reviewed with Plaintiff her personal history, and conducted a mental status examination. See AR 724-27. Dr. Moore opined Plaintiff's “anxiety disorder will interfere with her ability to persist at work functions over a normal day.” AR 726. Dr. Moore found that while Plaintiff is “intelligent and capable, ” her “anxiety disorder will make her performance inconsistent.” AR 726. Dr. Moore determined Plaintiff “will need more support and supervision to complete tasks as she is not yet able to work fully independently and autonomously.” AR 727. Moreover, Dr. Moore opined Plaintiff “will have more difficulty working collaboratively with others.” AR 727.

         Dr. Moore also found Plaintiff will “need more time than most to build a safe relationship so that she can interact, cooperate, and resolve differences with others appropriately.” AR 727. Dr. Moore determined ...

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