United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
ORDER REVERSING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY
BENEFITS AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS
Theresa L. Fricke United States Magistrate Judge
has brought this matter for judicial review of
defendant's denial of his application for supplemental
security income (SSI) benefits. The parties have consented to
have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge.
28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73;
Local Rule MJR 13. For the reasons below, the undersigned
reverses defendant's decision to deny benefits and
remands for further administrative proceedings.
the ALJ give adequate reasons to reject opinions from two
the ALJ give adequate reasons to discount plaintiff's
filed an application for SSI in April 2014, alleging he
became disabled as of August 5, 2008. Dkt. 8, Administrative
Record (AR) 15. His application was denied at the initial and
reconsideration levels of administrative review. Id.
After a hearing, an administrative law judge (ALJ) issued an
unfavorable written decision on August 16, 2017. AR 15-31;
see AR 38-88 (hearing transcript). The ALJ performed
the five-step sequential analysis. AR 15-31. He determined
that there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy that plaintiff could perform, and therefore
that plaintiff was not disabled. AR 30-31. Plaintiff filed a
complaint with this Court, seeking reversal and remand for an
award of benefits.
Court will uphold an ALJ's decision unless: (1) the
decision is based on legal error; or (2) the decision is not
supported by substantial evidence. Revels v.
Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017).
Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant evidence
as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.'” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139
S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co.
v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). This requires
“more than a mere scintilla, ” though “less
than a preponderance” of the evidence. Id.;
Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674-75 (9th Cir.
Court must consider the administrative record as a whole.
Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir.
2014). The Court is required to weigh both the evidence that
supports, and evidence that does not support, the ALJ's
conclusion. Id. The Court may not affirm the
decision of the ALJ for a reason upon which the ALJ did not
rely. Id. The Court considers only the reasons the
ALJ identified. Id.
the evidence admits of more than one rational interpretation,
” the Court must uphold the ALJ's decision.
Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984).
That is, “‘[w]here there is conflicting evidence
sufficient to support either outcome, '” the Court
“‘must affirm the decision actually
made.'” Id. (quoting Rhinehart v.
Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).
Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process
to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520, 416.920. The Commissioner assesses a
claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) to
determine-at step four-whether the claimant can perform past
relevant work. Kennedy v. Colvin, 738 F.3d 1172,
1175 (9th Cir. 2013). If the claimant cannot, then the ALJ
reviews-at step five-whether the claimant can adjust to other
work. Id. The Commissioner has the burden of proof
at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1099
(9th Cir. 1999). The Commissioner can meet this burden by
showing that a significant number of jobs that the claimant
can perform exist in the national economy. Id.; 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). A. Medical
Opinion Evidence Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's
decision, in assessing plaintiff's RFC, to discount
opinions from two examining psychologists-Holly Petaja,
Ph.D., and Ellen Walker, Ph.D.-about limitations from his
mental-health conditions. Because the ALJ failed to give
adequate and supported reasons to discount either of those
psychologists' opinions, the Court will reverse.
Examining Psychologist Holly Petaja, Ph.D.
Petaja evaluated plaintiff in February 2014. AR 318. She
conducted a clinical interview and a mental status exam. AR
318-22. She diagnosed plaintiff with panic disorder,
generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and substance
abuse disorders in remission. AR 319. She opined that
plaintiff would be moderately limited in several basic work
activities and markedly limited 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 work week without interruption from his
psychological symptoms. AR 320.
must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for
rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or
examining physician. Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d
664, 675 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Ryan v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008)). Even
when a treating or examining physician's opinion is
contradicted, an ALJ may only reject that opinion “by
providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported
by substantial evidence.” Id.
the ALJ rejected Dr. Petaja's opinion. AR 28. The marked
limitations Dr. Petaja found were contradicted by the
opinions of state agency psychological consultants.
See AR 97-98, 109-10, 320. Accordingly, the ALJ was
required to give specific, legitimate, and supported reasons
to discount those opinions. See Trevizo, 871 F.3d at
675. The ALJ did not do so.
rejected Dr. Petaja's opinion because, first, he found
that Dr. Petaja “had little basis on which to form an
opinion, ” having examined plaintiff only once and not
having reviewed treatment notes or other records, which
include “evidence of secondary gain.” AR 28. (As
the ALJ explained elsewhere, the record contains evidence
that some providers found plaintiff's statements
unreliable and motivated by a desire for shelter and drugs.
AR 22-26.) The frequency of a doctor's examination and
the amount and types of evidence the doctor considers are
legitimate considerations in weighing the doctor's
opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). But an ALJ may not
reject an examining opinion solely because it was based on
one visit and the doctor did not review other records.
See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir.
1995) (ALJ must give specific and legitimate reasons to
reject examining doctor's opinion that is contradicted).
Dr. Petaja performed a psychological evaluation that included
a clinical interview and mental status examination. AR
318-22. The ALJ was required to consider the opinion Dr.
Petaja reached based on such objective measures. See Buck
v. Berryhill, 869 F.3d 1040, 1049 (9th Cir. 2017).
rejected Dr. Petaja's opinion because, second, he found
Dr. Petaja “did not provide [a] specific rationale to
subs-tantiate … each limitation in her opinion.”
AR 28. An ALJ “need not accept the opinion of any
physician, including a treating physician, if that opinion is
brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical
findings.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947,
957 (9th Cir. 2002); see also 20 C.F.R. §
416.927(c)(3) (“The better an explanation a source
provides for a medical opinion, the more weight we will give
that medical opinion.”). But the Commissioner provides
no authority-and the Court is aware of none-that would permit
an ALJ to reject an examining-source opinion because it does
not articulate to the ALJ's satisfaction a separate basis
for each limitation the source found.
extent the ALJ found that Dr. Petaja's opinion was brief,
conclusory, and unsupported, substantial evidence does not
support that finding. Dr. Petaja's evaluation explains
the limitations she found: She noted that plaintiff “is
experiencing symptoms of depression, ” which she
described. AR 319. She found that “[t]hese symptoms are
present more days than not for periods of longer than two
weeks and interfere with his social and occupational
functioning.” Id. She also listed
plaintiff's specific anxiety symptoms and panic attacks
and found that these “interfere with his social and
occupational functioning.” Id. Noting the
results of a mental status examination, Dr. Petaja observed
that plaintiff's mood was dysthymic and ...