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Thuy H. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 1, 2019

THI THU THUY H., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING FOR AN AWARD OF BENEFITS

          RICARDO S. MARTINEZ CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by rejecting the opinion of James Czysz, Psy.D. Dkt. 12. The Court agrees. As discussed below, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's final decision and REMANDS the matter for an award of benefits under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is currently 47 years old, is not able to communicate effectively in English, and has worked as a meat trimmer. Dkt. 10, Admin. Record (AR) 1677. Plaintiff alleges disability as of the December 7, 2011, application date. AR 69, 238. Plaintiff's application was denied initially, on reconsideration, and by an ALJ decision in 2013. AR 67, 68, 93, 94, 26. On appeal to this court, the case was remanded for further proceedings based on the parties' stipulation. AR 715-16. After a 2015 ALJ decision denying benefits, Plaintiff appealed again to this court, which reversed the decision for reasons including erroneously rejecting Dr. Czysz's opinions. AR 654, 1357, 1359-62. After a 2016 ALJ decision again denying benefits, this court reversed the decision again for reasons including erroneously rejecting Dr. Czysz's opinions. AR 1227, 1741, 1746-48. In November 2018, the ALJ issued the decision at issue here, finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR 1647-78.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found:

         Step one: Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the December 2011 alleged onset date.

         Step two: Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder, psychotic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cognitive disorder, degenerative disc disease, and right 5th metacarpal fracture.

         Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[2]

         Residual Functional Capacity: Before April 4, 2013, Plaintiff could perform work at all exertional levels. She could perform simple routine tasks, work superficially and occasionally with the general public, work in the same room as coworkers but not in coordination with them, and adapt to simple workplace changes. Reading English and performing calculations could not have been the focus of the job.

         Since April 4, 2013, Plaintiff can perform light work, with no sitting, standing, or walking limitations. She can occasionally crawl and climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. She can frequently perform fine fingering and gross handling with her right upper extremity. She can perform simple routine tasks, work superficially and occasionally with the general public, work in the same room as coworkers but not in coordination with them, and adapt to simple workplace changes. Reading English and performing calculations cannot be the focus of the job.

         Step four: Before April 4, 2013, Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a meat trimmer.

         Since April 4, 2013, Plaintiff cannot perform past relevant work.

         Step five: As there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that

         Plaintiff can perform, she is not disabled.

         AR 1649-78. The Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision.[3]

         DISCUSSION

         This Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of Social Security benefits only if the ALJ's decision is based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674 (9th Cir. 2017). Each of an ALJ's findings must be supported by substantial evidence. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir. 1998). “Substantial evidence” is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The ALJ is responsible for evaluating evidence, 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. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954, 957 (9th Cir. 2002). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one interpretation, the ALJ's interpretation must be upheld if rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680-81 (9th Cir. 2005).

         An ALJ may only reject the uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining doctor by giving “clear and convincing” reasons. Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017). Even if a treating or examining doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor's opinion, an ALJ may only reject it by stating “specific and legitimate” reasons. Id. The ALJ can meet this standard by providing “a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Id. (citation omitted). “The ALJ must do more than offer his conclusions. He must set forth his own interpretations and explain why they, rather than the doctors', are correct.” Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725.

         Dr. Czysz provided opinions on a Psychological/Psychiatric Evaluation form in 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2017, each time after examining Plaintiff. AR 428, 1003, 1640, 2031. Each time, Dr. Czysz diagnosed Plaintiff with major depressive disorder, recurrent, severe with psychotic features. AR 426, 1001, 1638, 2029. Although the form changed over the years, Dr. Czysz opined each time that Plaintiff was “not … employable” or had marked impairments in basic work requirements such as attendance and performing routine tasks without special supervision. AR 427, 1003, 1640, 2030. The ALJ rejected all four opinions. AR 1671-74.

         A. January 2012 Opinion 1. Internal Consistency

         The ALJ found it inconsistent that Dr. Czysz determined that Plaintiff was “clearly psychotic” yet checked “no” when asked if he observed auditory hallucinations. AR 1671 (citing AR 428, 426). In the “Attitude and Behavior” category of the Mental Status Exam, Dr. Czysz wrote that Plaintiff “was agitated, appeared frightened, and she is clearly psychotic.” AR 428. In other words, Dr. Czysz reported that he observed psychotic attitudes or behaviors. The core of psychosis is “loss of contact with reality.” The American Heritage Dictionary for the English Language (4th ed. 2000), “psychosis.” That Dr. Czysz did not observe auditory hallucinations would only be contradictory if auditory hallucinations were the only type of psychotic behavior. The ALJ cites nothing in the record that would support such a conclusion and is not qualified to draw such a conclusion by substituting her own medical judgment in place of Dr. Czysz's. See Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 683 (it is improper for an ALJ to substitute her judgment for a doctor's). Internal inconsistency was not a specific and legitimate reason to discount Dr. Czysz's opinions.

         2. Conflict with ...


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