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Brent W. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 16, 2019

BRENT W., 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. Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits on July 15, 2015, alleging disability as of January 1, 2008.[1] 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.

         At Plaintiff's request, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Joanne Dantonio held a hearing[2] 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 1-3.

         Plaintiff 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.

         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 Rejecting Dr. Ruddell's Opinions

         Plaintiff 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.

         Dr. 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. at 870.

         The ALJ 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.

         To 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.

         The 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.

         The 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 ...


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