United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
MICHELLE L. PETERSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
seeks review of the denial of her application for Disability
Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff contends the administrative law
judge (“ALJ”) erred in evaluating the medical
evidence; discounting statements by Plaintiff and three lay
witnesses; and assessing Plaintiff's residual functional
capacity (“RFC”). (Dkt. # 16.) As discussed
below, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's final
decision and REMANDS the matter for further administrative
was born in 1977, completed two years of college, and has
worked as a title clerk, telemarketer, receptionist,
production worker, machine operator, fork lift operator, and
in customer service. AR at 332-33, 338, 397. Plaintiff was
last gainfully employed in 2008. Id. at 332.
January 27, 2010, Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging
disability as of July 1, 2008. AR at 323. Plaintiff's
application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and
Plaintiff requested a hearing. Id. at 118, 119,
168-69. After ALJ Glenn G. Meyers conducted hearings on
February 23, 2012 and June 12, 2012, the ALJ issued a
decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at
34-84, 120-132. The matter was subsequently remanded by the
Appeals Council. Id. at 140-43. ALJ Meyers conducted
a third hearing on January 22, 2015, and issued a decision
finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at 11-23. The
Appeals Counsel declined review and Plaintiff appealed the
final decision of the Commissioner to the United States
District Court for the Western District of Washington.
Id. at 1-4. The Honorable Karen L. Strombom issued
an order reversing ALJ Meyers' decision, and remanding
the matter for further administrative proceedings.
Id. at 1133-42. ALJ Virginia Robinson conducted
Plaintiff's fourth hearing on June 8, 2018 and issued a
decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at
the five-step disability evaluation process,  the ALJ found:
Step one: Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful
activity during the period from her alleged onset date of
July 1, 2008 through her date last insured of December 31,
Step two: Plaintiff has the following severe impairments:
lumbar spine degenerative disc disease; fibromyalgia; sleep
apnea; obesity; migraine headaches; learning disorder;
affective disorders (bipolar disorder and depression);
anxiety disorders (anxiety, social phobia, agoraphobia, and
panic disorder); impulse control disorder; pain disorder; and
personality disorders (personality disorder, borderline
personality characteristics, and B traits) (20 CFR
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the
requirements of a listed impairment.
Residual Functional Capacity: through the date last insured,
Plaintiff could perform light work as defined in 20 CFR
404.1567(b) with limitations. She could lift and carry up to
twenty pounds occasionally and up to ten pounds frequently;
she could stand and walk for approximately six hours and sit
for approximately six hours per eight-hour workday with
normal breaks; she could occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch,
and crawl; she has limited to simple routine tasks, in a
routine work environment with simple work related decisions;
and she was limited to only superficial interaction with
coworkers and occasional superficial or incidental
interactions with the public.
Step four: Through the date last insured, Plaintiff was
unable perform past relevant work.
Step five: As there are jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform,
Plaintiff is not disabled.
AR at 1040-52.
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review,
the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final
decision. AR at 1-6. Plaintiff appealed the final decision of
the Commissioner to this Court. (Dkt. # 16.)
42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the
Commissioner's denial of social security benefits when
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 (9th Cir.
2005). As a general principle, an ALJ's error may be
deemed harmless where it is “inconsequential to the
ultimate nondisability determination.” Molina v.
Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012) (cited
sources omitted). The Court looks to “the record as a
whole to determine whether the error alters the outcome of
the case.” Id.
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 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 Commissioner. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278
F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). When the evidence is
susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is
the Commissioner's conclusion that must be upheld.
Prior Remand Order
discussed above, this matter was previously remanded for a
fourth administrative hearing by this Court. AR at 1133-42.
Judge Strombom found the ALJ's evaluation of the opinion
evidence of Kristin Young, PA-C constituted reversible error,
and therefore also reversed the ALJ's assessment of
Plaintiff's RFC and step five finding. Id. at
1134. The Court declined to reach the remaining assignments
the Court not reaching the other alleged errors, ALJ Robinson
found that Judge Strombom had affirmed ALJ Meyers'
evaluation of Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony
and his evaluation of Dr. Picco and Chiropractor
Jeffrey's opinion evidence. Id. at 1047-48.
Plaintiff argues ALJ Robinson erred by finding that Judge
Strombom's remand order affirmed Plaintiff's
subjective symptom testimony and the evaluation of Dr. Picco
and Chiropractor Jeffrey's opinion, and also by
incorporating the analysis of the ALJ Meyers' vacated
decision regarding those alleged errors. (Dkt. # 16 at
5-6.) Plaintiff further argues the ALJ should have instead
re-evaluated all the evidence. (Id. at 6.)
noted above, the Court finds that Judge Strombom's order
only addressed the ALJ's evaluation of Ms. Young's
opinion evidence, and any implications that error had on the
RFC determination and step five findings. Because the other
assignments of error have not been ruled on, the Court will
consider each of Plaintiff's alleged errors raised on
appeal (dkt. # 16 at 1.).
The ALJ Erred in Evaluating Plaintiff's
Legal Standards for Evaluating Plaintiff's Testimony
the province of the ALJ to determine what weight should be
afforded to a claimant's testimony, and this
determination will not be disturbed unless it is not
supported by substantial evidence. A determination of whether
to accept a claimant's subjective symptom testimony
requires a two-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1529, 416.929; Smolen v. Charter, 80 F.3d 1273,
1281 (9th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ must determine whether
there is a medically determinable impairment that reasonably
could be expected to cause the claimant's symptoms. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(b), 416.929(b); Smolen,
80 F.3d at 1281-82. Once a claimant produces medical evidence
of an underlying impairment, the ALJ may not discredit the
claimant's testimony as to the severity of symptoms
solely because they are unsupported by objective medical
evidence. Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 341, 343
(9th Cir. 1991) (en banc); Reddick v. Chater, 157
F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1988). Absent affirmative evidence
showing that the claimant is malingering, the ALJ must