United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DENIAL OF
B. Leighton United States District Judge
matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Complaint (Dkt.
3) for review of the Commissioner of Social Security's
denial of his application for supplemental security income
(“SSI”) benefits. This is the second time this
matter has been before the Court. See Admin. Record
(“AR”) (Dkt. 7) at 616-28.
has severe impairments of monocular vision, headaches,
affective disorder, and anxiety disorder versus posttraumatic
stress disorder (“PTSD”). Id. at 511. On
December 19, 2013, Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits,
alleging disability as of April 8, 2003. Id. at 59,
143-48. Plaintiff's application was denied on initial
review and on reconsideration. Id. at 59-83.
Plaintiff's request, Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) M.J. Adams held a hearing on
Plaintiff's claims. Id. at 36-57. On August 18,
2015, ALJ Adams issued a decision finding Plaintiff not
disabled and denying his claim for benefits. Id. at
12-23. The Appeals Council denied review. Id. at
1-3. Plaintiff then sought review in this Court. Id.
September 28, 2017, U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Brian
Tsuchida issued a decision reversing and remanding the
ALJ's decision for further administrative proceedings.
Id. at 620-28. Chief Magistrate Judge Tsuchida
ordered the ALJ on remand to, among other things, reevaluate
the medical evidence, further develop the record as needed,
and reassess the disability evaluation. See Id. at
remand, ALJ Adams held a second hearing. Id. at
541-82. On January 15, 2019, ALJ Adams issued a decision
again finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and denying his
claim for SSI benefits. Id. at 508-22. The Appeals
Council did not assume jurisdiction, so the ALJ's
decision became the Commissioner's final decision.
See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1484(d).
argues that ALJ Adams erred in (a) discounting
Plaintiff's symptom testimony, and (b) evaluating five
medical opinions in the record. Pl. Op. Br. (Dkt. 9) at 1.
Plaintiff asks the Court to remand this matter for further
administrative proceedings. Id.
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the 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).
The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, 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.
See Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir.
The ALJ Harmfully Erred in Discounting Plaintiff's
contends that the ALJ erred in rejecting his subjective
symptom testimony. Pl. Op. Br. at 4-13. Plaintiff testified
that he has difficulty walking, standing, and sitting due to
low back and knee pain. AR at 46-48, 551, 555-56. He testified
that he cannot make a fist or grip with his left hand.
Id. at 43-45, 551, 554-55. Plaintiff testified that
he has headaches triggered by light exposure. Id. at
42, 45, 553-54. He testified that he cannot concentrate due
to anxiety and does not get along with others. Id.
at 48-49, 551-52, 558-60.
Ninth Circuit has “established a two-step analysis for
determining the extent to which a claimant's symptom
testimony must be credited.” Trevizo v.
Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 678 (9th Cir. 2017). The ALJ
must first determine whether the claimant has presented
objective medical evidence of an impairment that
“‘could reasonably be expected to produce the
pain or other symptoms alleged.'” Id.
(quoting Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1014-15
(9th Cir. 2014)). At this stage, the claimant need only show
that the impairment could have caused some degree of the
symptoms; he does not have to show that the impairment could
be expected to cause the severity of the symptoms alleged.
Id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff met this step
because his medically determinable impairments could have
caused the symptoms he alleged. AR at 515.
claimant satisfies the first step, and there is no evidence
of malingering, the ALJ may only reject the claimant's
testimony “‘by offering specific, clear and
convincing reasons for doing so. This is not an easy
requirement to meet.'” Trevizo, 871 F.3d
at 678 (quoting Garrison, 759 F.3d at
1014-15). In evaluating the ALJ's determination
at this step, the Court may not substitute its judgment for
that of the ALJ. Fair v. Bowen, 885 F.2d 597, 604
(9th Cir. 1989). As long as the ALJ's decision is
supported by substantial evidence, it should stand, even if
some of the ALJ's reasons for discrediting a
claimant's testimony fail. See Tonapetyan v.
Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1148 (9th Cir. 2001).
gave reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's testimony that
were specific to the symptoms from Plaintiff's left hand
pain, headaches, and mental health. See AR at
511-16. The ALJ also gave two general reasons for rejecting
all of Plaintiff's symptom testimony: Plaintiff allegedly
magnified the severity of his symptoms, and Plaintiff failed
to report income to the IRS. Id. at 517. The Court
first addresses the ALJ's specific rejection of
Plaintiff's testimony regarding each of his impairments,
and then addresses the ALJ's two general reasons for
rejecting Plaintiff's overall testimony.
Left Hand Pain
rejected Plaintiff's testimony regarding his left hand
pain for three reasons. First, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff's testimony was not corroborated by the medical
evidence. Id. at 511. Second, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff did not comply with treatment, undermining his
allegations. Id. at 512. Third, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff's daily activities contradicted his testimony.
ALJ's first reason for rejecting Plaintiff's left
hand pain symptom testimony fails. The ALJ rejected
Plaintiff's testimony because a December 2016
neurological exam revealed normal limb strength, which the
ALJ felt was inconsistent with someone who had no function in
his left hand. Id. at 511-12, 758. The ALJ veered
too far into territory reserved to medical experts in
reaching this conclusion. See Moghadam v. Colvin,
No. C15-2009-TSZ-JPD, 2016 WL 7664487, at *6 (W.D. Wash. Dec.
21, 2016); Schmidt v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 117, 118
(7th Cir. 1990) (“[J]udges, including administrative
law judges of the Social Security Administration, must be
careful not to succumb to the temptation to play doctor. . .
. The medical expertise of the Social Security Administration
is reflected in regulations; it is not the birthright of the
lawyers who apply them. Common sense can mislead; lay
intuitions about medical phenomena are often wrong.”)
(internal citations omitted). Whether those with loss of hand
function experience diminished limb strength is not an
established medical fact, and the ALJ erred in rejecting
Plaintiff's testimony based on this assumption.
ALJ's second reason for rejecting Plaintiff's left
hand pain testimony is weak, at best. The ALJ's primary
concern here was that Plaintiff failed to show up for a
post-surgery appointment in September 2014 and was not seen
again until June 2015. AR at 512, 762. “[A]n
‘unexplained, or inadequately explained, failure to
seek treatment' may be the basis for an adverse
credibility finding unless one of a ‘number of good
reasons for not doing so' applies.” Orn v.
Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 638 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting
Fair, 885 F.2d at 603). Plaintiff's failure to
follow up on treatment undermines his testimony, but not so
much as to overcome the ALJ's other errors. See
Burrell v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 1133, 1140 (9th Cir. 2014)
(holding that “one weak reason, ” even if
supported by substantial evidence, “is insufficient to
meet the ‘specific, clear and convincing'