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Malinda K. R. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 7, 2019

MALINDA K. R., 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 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. 3.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when she failed to properly consider the opinions of Doctors Keri Tarantino, Matthew Comrie, and Rita Flanagan. Dkt. 9, p. 1, 3-6. Had the ALJ properly considered these doctors' opinions, the ALJ may have found Plaintiff had additional severe impairments at Step Two of the sequential evaluation process and Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) may have included additional limitations. The ALJ's error is therefore harmful, and this matter is reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On November 6, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of September 10, 2015. See Dkt. 7, Administrative Record (“AR”) 15, 17. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 15. A hearing was held before ALJ Marilyn S. Mauer on October 11, 2017. AR 30-64. In a decision dated April 5, 2018, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 15-25. 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 1-6; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

         In the Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by failing to find Plaintiff suffered from a severe mental impairment at Step Two of the sequential evaluation process. Dkt. 9, p. 1. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ improperly discounted the medical opinions of Drs. Tarantino, Comrie, and Flanagan. Dkt. 9, p. 1, 3-6.

         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 erred in finding Plaintiff's mental impairment was not severe at Step Two of the sequential evaluation.

         Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by failing to find Plaintiff suffered from a severe mental impairment at Step Two of the sequential evaluation process. Dkt. 9, p. 1. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ's finding at Step Two is inconsistent with the medical opinions of Drs. Tarantino, Comrie, and Flanagan. Id. at pp. 2-6. Plaintiff essentially contends the ALJ's consideration of three medical opinions resulted in an error at Step Two. See Dkt. 6. Therefore, the Court analyzes whether the ALJ properly considered the medical opinions of Drs. Tarantino, Comrie, and Flanagan.

         A. Dr. Tarantino

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ improperly rejected Dr. Tarantino's opinion.

         The ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for rejecting the 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 a treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted, the opinion can be rejected “for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31 (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 can accomplish this by “setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and ...


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