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A. K. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 27, 2019

KATHLEEN A. K., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          DAVID W. CHRISTEL, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of Defendant's denial of Plaintiff's applications for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and Local Rule MJR 13, the parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. See Dkt. 2.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when he improperly dismissed several medical opinions. Had the ALJ properly considered the opinions, Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) may have included additional limitations. The ALJ's error is therefore not harmless, and this matter is reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On August 29, 2013, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability as of June 7, 2013. Dkt. 12, p. 1. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (“AR”) 20. A hearing was held before ALJ Tom L. Morris on March 10, 2015. AR 20. In a decision dated June 17, 2015, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 34. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See AR 1; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

         In the Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by failing to properly: (1) assess the medical opinions in the record; and (2) evaluate Plaintiff's subjective testimony regarding her conditions. Dkt. 12, p. 1.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this 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) (citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1999)).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the medical evidence.

         Plaintiff asserts the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions from Plaintiff's treating and examining physicians regarding her physical and mental impairments and adopted the opinions of the nonexamining State agency physicians. Dkt. 12, p. 10.

         The ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for denying an uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or examining physician. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988); Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502, 506 (9th Cir. 1990)). When either a treating or an examining physician's opinion is contradicted, the ALJ may deny the opinion “for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-831 (citing Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1043 (9th Cir. 1995); Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1983)). The ALJ may do so by setting out “a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989)). Lastly, The ALJ may discount testimony from “other sources, ” such as from a Physician's Assistant or a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, if the ALJ “‘gives reasons germane to each witness for doing so.'” See Turner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 613 F.3d 1217, 1224 (9th Cir.2010) (quoting Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 511 (9th Cir.2001)).

         First, Plaintiff asserts the ALJ improperly gave little weight to Dr. Vanessa B. Edrich's opinions. Dkt. 12, pp. 10-12. Dr. Edrich, who has been treating Plaintiff since 2002, completed medical source statements in February 2005, July 2014, December 2014, August 2015, and September 2018. AR 700-702, 704. In the September 2018 statement, Dr. Edrich opined that “claimant could not meet the demands of even sedentary work” because of her physical limitations, such as not being able to carry any amount of weight, or the need to use the restroom up to every 20 minutes. AR 701. The ALJ discussed Dr. Edrich's September 2018 opinion and found it was entitled to little weight, stating:

The undersigned finds Dr. Edrich's opinion as reflected in this form entitled to little weight as (1) it is not supported by her own treating records or with the other medical records of evidence and (2) is not consistent with ...

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