United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
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. Plaintiff applied for SSI
benefits on July 15, 2015, alleging disability as of January
1, 2008. See Admin. Record
(“AR”) (Dkt. 7) at 151-52, 270-75.
Plaintiff's application was denied on initial review and
on reconsideration. Id. at 151-78.
Plaintiff's request, Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) Joanne Dantonio held a
hearing on Plaintiff's claims. Id. at
41-124. On February 22, 2018, ALJ Dantonio issued a decision
finding that Plaintiff had severe impairments of left
subtalar osteoarthritis, congenital tarsal coalition, and
bipolar disorder vs. major depressive disorder. Id.
at 19. ALJ Dantonio nonetheless found that Plaintiff was not
disabled and denied his claim for benefits. Id. at
15-33. The Appeals Council denied review. Id. at
argues that ALJ Dantonio erred in rejecting (a) the opinions
of examining psychologist Alysa Ruddell, Ph.D., (b) the
opinions of treating therapist Catrina Holden, M.A., M.H.P.,
and (c) the lay witness statements from Plaintiff's
stepfather, mother, father, and cousin. Pl. Op. Br. (Dkt. 9)
at 1. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ erred at step
five of the disability evaluation by failing to properly
establish that Plaintiff could perform work that exists in
significant numbers in the national economy. See 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 Rejecting Dr. Ruddell's
argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting Dr. Ruddell's
opinions. Pl. Op. Br. at 3-11. Dr. Ruddell examined Plaintiff
on June 8, 2015. AR at 449-53. Dr. Ruddell conducted a
clinical interview and performed a mental status exam.
Id. She opined that Plaintiff had marked limitations
in his ability to learn new tasks, adapt to routine workplace
changes, communicate and perform effectively in a work
setting, maintain appropriate behavior, complete a normal
work day or week without interruptions from his
psychologically based symptoms, set goals, and plan
independently. Id. at 451.
Ruddell examined Plaintiff a second time on May 18, 2017.
Id. at 868-72. Dr. Ruddell again conducted a
clinical interview and performed a mental status exam.
Id. She largely reiterated her 2015 opinion, but
found that Plaintiff was only moderately limited in his
ability to communicate and perform effectively in a normal
work setting, and maintain appropriate behavior. Id.
gave Dr. Ruddell's opinions little weight. Id.
at 27. The ALJ gave four reasons for this determination.
Id. First, the ALJ found that Dr. Ruddell's
opinions were inconsistent with the overall medical evidence,
which showed that Plaintiff improved with appropriate
medication and therapy. Id. Second, the ALJ found
that Dr. Ruddell's opinions were inconsistent with her
own exam findings. Id. Third, the ALJ found that Dr.
Ruddell based her opinions on incorrect information about
Plaintiff's work history. Id. Fourth the ALJ
found that Dr. Ruddell's opinions were inconsistent with
Plaintiff's activities of daily living. Id.
reject Dr. Ruddell's opinions, which were contradicted by
other evidence in the record, the ALJ was required to provide
“specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by
substantial evidence in the record.” See Lester v.
Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing
Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1042). The ALJ's reasons did
not meet this standard.
ALJ's first reason for rejecting Dr. Ruddell's
opinions-that they were contradicted by the overall medical
evidence-is not supported by substantial evidence. The ALJ
did not identify any contradictions, but instead pointed to a
few notes that Plaintiff “engaged in a pleasant manner
with mental health professionals.” AR at 25, 27. The
ability to engage with professionals trained to deal with
mental health issues does not contradict Dr. Ruddell's
opinion that Plaintiff would struggle to communicate and
maintain appropriate behavior in a work setting. Cf.
20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, App'x 1, §
12.00(C)(6)(b) (2016) (“Your ability to complete tasks
in settings that are highly structured, or that are less
demanding or more supportive than typical work settings does
not necessarily demonstrate your ability to complete tasks in
the context of regular employment during a normal workday or
work week.”). Moreover, the ALJ's claim that
Plaintiff “improved with appropriate medication and
therapy treatment” is not supported by the evidence and
fails to acknowledge that a claimant can improve without
getting to the point of being able to work. See Garrison
v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1017 n.23 (9th Cir. 2014)
(noting that “‘there can be a great distance
between a patient who responds to treatment and one who is
able to enter the workforce'”) (quoting Scott
v. Astrue, 637 F.3d 734, 739-40 (7th Cir. 2011)). The
ALJ did not point to evidence in the record, nor did the
Court locate any, that shows Plaintiff's symptoms
improved to the point that they were well-controlled.
See AR at 27. In fact, the records to which the ALJ
cited show the opposite. For example, the ALJ cited to a
record that supposedly showed Plaintiff's “ability
to handle his temper improved with appropriate
therapy.” See Id. at 25, 711. That record
actually indicates that Plaintiff “reported challenges
with handling his temper, ” and “broke many of
his own possessions.” Id. at 711.
Plaintiff's therapist noted at that appointment that
Plaintiff had regressed in his treatment. Id. The
ALJ's reasoning was therefore unsupported by substantial
evidence, so the ALJ erred in rejecting Dr. Ruddell's
opinions as contradicted by the medical evidence.
ALJ's second reason for rejecting Dr. Ruddell's
opinions-that they were contradicted by her own exam
findings-fails because the ALJ failed to explain his
analysis. “[A]n ALJ errs when he rejects a medical
opinion or assigns it little weight while doing nothing more
than ignoring it, asserting without explanation that another
medical opinion is more persuasive, or criticizing it with
boilerplate language that fails to offer a substantive basis
for his conclusion.” Garrison, 759 F.3d at
1013-14 (citing Nguyen v. Chater, 100 F.3d 1462,
1464 (9th Cir. 1996)). The ALJ recited some of Dr.
Ruddell's exam findings, but did not explain how they
contradicted her ...