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Vincent T. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 12, 2019

VINCENT T., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DENIAL OF BENEFITS

          Ronald B. Leighton United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         At 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. at 501-04.

         On 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 628.

         On 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).

         Plaintiff 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.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Pursuant 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. 2002).

         A. The ALJ Harmfully Erred in Discounting Plaintiff's Symptom Testimony

         Plaintiff 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.[1] 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.

         The 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.

         If the 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).

         The ALJ 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.

         1. Left Hand Pain

         The ALJ 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. Id.

         The 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.

         The 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' standard” ...


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