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Thomas L. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 18, 2019

THOMAS L., Plaintiff,


          Brian A. Tsuchida, Chief United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff appeals the denial of his application for Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits. He contends the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in his evaluation of the medical opinion evidence and of Plaintiff's subjective claims, all of which resulted in an erroneous residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment. Dkt. 12, p. 1. The Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.


         On May 8, 2015 (protective), Plaintiff applied for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits (SSI), under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act (the Act), alleging disability beginning July 1, 2014 (amended), with a date last insured of December 31, 2014. Tr. 55, 255. 42 USC §§ 423 (d) (1) (A), 1382c (a) (3). On September 1, 2015, the claims were denied initially, and on January 15, 2016, on reconsideration. Tr. 126-32. On February 8, 2016, Plaintiff requested a hearing. Tr. 136-41. On July 18, 2017, ALJ S. Andrew Grace held the hearing, with Plaintiff, his attorney, and a vocational expert (VE) in attendance. Tr. 52-79.

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920), the ALJ determined at steps one through three, that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period at issue; Plaintiff established degenerative disc disease; hearing loss; headache; anxiety; and major depressive disorder; and these impairments did not meet the Listings (20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P. Appendix 1). Tr. 26, 27.

         The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff with the following RFC: Light work; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; never crawl; occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; frequently push and pull bilaterally; perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, consistent with unskilled work; low stress work, defined as work requiring few decisions and/or changes; tolerate moderate noise level, which is defined as noise level of a department store or grocery store; avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations and hazards. Tr. 28. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work. Tr. 43.

         At step five, the ALJ relied on a vocational expert, who testified Plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs such as Housekeeper, DOT 323.687-014, light, unskilled SVP 2, with 140, 000 such jobs in the national economy and 2, 500 in the state of Washington; and Price marker, DOT 209.587-034, light, unskilled SVP 2, with 25, 000 jobs nationally and 200 in Washington. Tr. 44.

         On January 31, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 21-51. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on December 18, 2018. Thus, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner, and is ripe for judicial review.


         The Court will reverse the ALJ's decision only if it was not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole or if the ALJ applied the wrong legal standard. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012). The ALJ's decision may not be reversed on account of an error that is harmless. Id. at 1111. Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Court must uphold the Commissioner's interpretation. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         A. Evaluation of Medical Evidence

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to reasonably evaluate the opinions of examining physician Ronald Goldberg, M.D.; treating nurse practitioner Erin Chase, A.R.N.P.; examining psychiatrist Peter Weiss, Ph.D.; and counselor Phillip Williams, M.A., L.M.H.C.

         In cases filed before March 27, 2017, more weight should be given to the opinions of treating and examining doctors than to the opinions of doctors who do not treat the claimant. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); SSR 96-2p. The ALJ must “explain in the decision the weight given to the opinions” of all acceptable medical sources. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(e)(2)(ii) (2016). An ALJ may reject the opinion of an examining physician that is contradicted by the opinion of a non-examining physician for specific and legitimate reasons. Moore v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 278 F.3d 920, 924 (9th Cir. 2002).

         An ALJ may discount “other source” evidence, such as nurse practitioners and counselors (see 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1502, 416.902 (defining acceptable medical sources)), by offering any reason that is ...

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