United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
A. Tsuchida Chief United States Magistrate Judge
Martin I. seeks review of the denial of his applications for
Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance
Benefits. He contends the ALJ erred by (1) misevaluating the
medical evidence, (2) failing to properly consider the
effects of plaintiff's chronic pain, and (3) failing to
evaluate the testimony of plaintiff's mother about his
limitations. Dkt. 13. The Court REVERSES the
Commissioner's final decision and
REMANDS the matter for further
administrative proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C.
is currently 42 years old, has a high school education, and
has worked as a construction worker and operating engineer.
Tr. 43, 48-50. In March 2016, he applied for benefits,
alleging disability as of July 7, 2015. Tr. 260, 262. After
his applications were denied initially and on
reconsideration, the ALJ conducted a hearing and, on March
21, 2018, issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled.
Tr. 15-28. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request
for review, making the ALJ's decision the
Commissioner's final decision. Tr. 1.
the five-step disability evaluation process,  the ALJ found
that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the alleged onset date; he had the following
severe impairments: cervical degenerative disc disease status
post-surgery, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder, and chronic pain syndrome;
and these impairments did not meet or equal the requirements
of a listed impairment. Tr. 17-18. The ALJ found that plaintiff
had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary
work with additional postural, manipulative, and
environmental limitations, and he can understand, remember,
and apply detailed but not complex instructions. Tr. 20. The
ALJ found that plaintiff could not perform any past work,
but, as there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in
the national economy that he could perform, he was not
disabled. Tr. 26-27.
argues that the ALJ erred by accepting the physical capacity
assessment from treating physician's assistant Bradley
Smith, PAC, but rejecting a similar but more detailed
assessment from treating physician Matthew Stevenson, MD, and
failing to comment on another similar assessment from
treating chiropractor Joel Vranna, DC. Dkt. 13 at 8. The ALJ
must give specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting a
treating doctor's opinion that is contradicted by another
doctor, and clear and convincing reasons for rejecting a
treating doctor's uncontradicted opinion. Lester v.
Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1996). The ALJ
must give germane reasons for rejecting opinions from other
sources that are not acceptable medical sources. Dodrill
v. Shalala, 12 F.3d 915, 919 (9th Cir. 1993).
January 2016, Mr. Smith opined that plaintiff was limited to
sedentary work. Tr. 487. He opined that plaintiff's
cervical degenerative disc disease, carpal tunnel syndrome,
and rotator cuff syndrome caused moderate to marked
limitations in sitting, standing, lifting, carrying,
handling, pushing, pulling, reaching, stooping, and
crouching. Tr. 486. The ALJ gave Mr. Smith's opinion
significant weight, finding it substantially consistent with
the evidence as a whole. Tr. 24. The ALJ also stated that
adopting Mr. Smith's assessment would give plaintiff the
greatest possible benefit of the doubt concerning his
subjective complaints. Id. Plaintiff asserts that
Mr. Smith's assessment is similar to Dr. Stevenson's
and Mr. Vranna's assessments, except the latter two
assessments used forms that were more specific in quantifying
limitations that affect work activity, and yet the ALJ
rejected the latter two assessments without providing valid
reasons. Dkt. 13 at 8.
2017, Dr. Stevenson opined that plaintiff could stand or walk
for less than 2 hours and sit for about 4 hours in an 8-hour
workday; he could rarely lift less than 10 pounds and never
lift more than that, rarely perform postural activities, and
perform manipulative activities from 5 to 30 percent of a
workday; he would be off task 25 percent of the time or more;
he was incapable of even low stress work; and he would be
absent from work more than four days per month. Tr. 813-15.
gave Dr. Stevenson's opinion little weight, finding that
the assessment was not well supported by the medical evidence
of record, that plaintiff does not have significant
abnormalities of the mid- or low-back that would limit his
postural activities to the degree Dr. Stevenson opined, he
had no medically determinable severe impairment that would
limit his ability to sit, and the orthopedic and diagnostic
records support plaintiff having normal strength, sensation,
and range of motion in his upper extremities, which was at
odds with Dr. Stevenson's assessment. Tr. 25. Plaintiff
argues that Mr. Smith also found marked limitations in
plaintiff's ability to sit, stand, carry, lift, push,
stoop, and crouch, and perform manipulative activities, which
the ALJ accepted even while rejecting Dr. Stevenson's
similar limitations. Dkt. 13 at 8-9. Plaintiff also argues
that the ALJ engaged in improper medical analysis in finding
that plaintiff did not have mid- or low-back abnormalities
that would limit his postural activities to the degree Dr.
Stevenson opined. Dkt. 13 at 8. Both Dr. Stevenson and Mr.
Smith attributed postural limitations to plaintiff's
cervical disc disease, and yet the ALJ accepted Mr.
Smith's opinions about these limitations and rejected Dr.
Stevenson's. Moreover, the ALJ may not substitute his own
interpretation of the medical evidence for the opinion of a
medical professional. See Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d
1094, 1102-03 (9th Cir. 1999). The ALJ impermissibly relied
on his own interpretation of the medical evidence in finding
that only a low back impairment could cause the postural
limitations Mr. Smith and Dr. Stevenson opined. These were
not valid reasons to reject Dr. Stevenson's opinion.
also found that Dr. Stevenson's opinion that plaintiff
was incapable of even low stress work was not supported by
the consultative psychological examination and found that Dr.
Stevenson is not a psychiatric specialist. Id. Dr.
Stevenson opined that plaintiff's inability to tolerate
even low stress work was because his “pain precludes
concentration.” Tr. 815. He did not attribute this
limitation to a psychological impairment. And the fact that a
primary care physician is not a mental health specialist is
not a valid reason to reject her opinion about a
claimant's mental limitations. See Lester, 81
F.3d at 833. These were also invalid reasons to reject Dr.
found that Dr. Stevenson's opinion that plaintiff would
be absent four days per month appeared to be overly reliant
on plaintiff's subjective complaints. Tr. 25-26. And the
ALJ found that at the time he gave his opinion, Dr. Stevenson
had been treating plaintiff for only a few months, and his
own treatment notes do not report any objective neurological
abnormalities. Tr. 26. An ALJ does not provide adequate
reasons for rejecting an examining physician's opinion by
questioning the credibility of the patient's complaints
where the doctor does not discredit those complaints and
supports his ultimate opinion with his own observations.
Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1159 (9th Cir.
2001). Dr. Stevenson did not question plaintiff's