United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DENIAL OF
B. LEIGHTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Kimbra L. seeks review of the denial of her applications for
supplemental security income and disability insurance
benefits. Compl. (Dkt. 1). Plaintiff has severe impairments
of status post fracture of the right ankle, osteoarthrosis,
degenerative joint disease, obesity, affective disorder, and
anxiety disorder. Admin. Record (“AR”) (Dkt. 9)
applied for disability benefits in 2015, alleging disability
as of July 10, 2013. Id. at 307-14. Plaintiff's
application was denied on initial review and on
reconsideration. Id. at 133-70. At Plaintiff's
request, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Tom
Morris held a hearing on Plaintiff's
claims. Id. at 39-132. On January 31,
2018, ALJ Morris issued a decision finding Plaintiff not
disabled and denying her claim for benefits. Id. at
20-31. The Appeals Council denied review. Id. at
argues that ALJ Morris erred by (a) rejecting the opinions of
mental health counselor Anita LaRae, LMHC, (b) rejecting the
opinions of treating doctor Wendy Pierce, M.D., and (c)
accepting the opinions of the state agency consultants. Pl.
Op. Br. (Dkt. 11) at 1.
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). “Where the evidence is susceptible to more than
one rational interpretation, one of which supports the
ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be
The ALJ Did Not Harmfully Err in Rejecting Ms. LaRae's
argues that ALJ Morris erred in rejecting Ms. LaRae's
opinions. Pl. Op. Br. at 2-3. Ms. LaRae is Plaintiff's
treating mental health counselor. See AR at 1072-77,
1104-16, 1150-52, 1156-60. Ms. LaRae submitted four medical
source statements. Id. at 1072-77, 1151-52, 1157. On
February 27, 2017, Ms. LaRae completed a form statement in
which she checked boxes opining that Plaintiff had marked
limitations in sustained concentration and persistence,
social interaction, and adaptation. Id. at 1073-74.
On December 6, 2017, Ms. LaRae signed a statement in which
she opined that Plaintiff's limitations had significantly
worsened since Ms. LaRae's February 2017 statement.
Id. at 1157.
March 10, 2017, Ms. LaRae completed a letter in which she
described her treatment of Plaintiff, her diagnoses, and her
recommendations for further treatment. Id. at
1076-77. Ms. LaRae noted that Plaintiff struggles with
emotional mood swings, rage, and communication. See
Id. at 1076. Ms. LaRae also reported that Plaintiff had
a global assessment of functioning (“GAF”)
score of 55. Id. at 1077. On December
4, 2017, Ms. LaRae completed a letter that was largely the
same as her March 2017 letter. See Id. at 1151-52.
Morris rejected Ms. LaRae's check-box opinions from
February 2017 and December 6, 2017, because she relied on
Plaintiff's subjective complaints in formulating those
opinions, and ALJ Morris had rejected Plaintiff's
complaints as not well-supported by the overall record.
Id. at 28. ALJ Morris stated-incongruously-that
“[Ms.] LaRae's opinion is given weight, however,
and addressed in the [second] RFC as detailed above.”
Id. at 28. ALJ Morris gave no further explanation,
other than to state that “[g]reater weight is placed on
[Ms.] LaRae's narrative opinion than the GAF score as one
example, for the GAF necessarily says very little about the
most any claimant can do.” Id.
parties dispute whether ALJ Morris rejected all of Ms.
LaRae's opinions or accepted some of them. Pl. Op. Br. at
2; Def. Resp. Br. (Dkt. 12) at 9. ALJ Morris's decision
is unclear on this issue, but it is ultimately irrelevant to
the outcome. Assuming ALJ Morris rejected all of Ms.
LaRae's opinions, Plaintiff has failed to show harmful
error. See Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1054
(9th Cir. 2012) (citing Shinseki v. Sanders, 556
U.S. 396, 407-09 (2009)) (holding that the party challenging
an administrative decision bears the burden of proving
harmful error). Although ALJ Morris's analysis is poorly
written, he reasonably determined that Ms. LaRae relied too
heavily on Plaintiff's subjective complaints, which ALJ
Morris had separately rejected. See Wilder v. Comm'r
of Soc. Sec. Admin., 545 Fed.Appx. 638, 639 (9th Cir.
2013); Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169
F.3d 595, 602 (9th Cir. 1999). Plaintiff does not challenge
ALJ Morris's rejection of her subjective symptom
testimony, so it is presumed that ALJ Morris did not err in
argues that ALJ Morris erred in finding that Ms. LaRae relied
too heavily on Plaintiff's subjective complaints because
Ms. LaRae conducted interviews during therapy sessions. Pl.
Op. Br. at 2. An ALJ generally may not reject an opinion from
a psychiatrist or psychologist for being too heavily based on
the plaintiff's self-reports when the doctor performs a
clinical interview or mental status evaluation because those
are objective measures that can separately support the
doctor's opinion. See Buck v. Berryhill, 869
F.3d 1040, 1049 (9th Cir. 2017). But the interviews that Ms.
LaRae conducted are not comparable to the clinical interviews
and mental status evaluations psychologists and psychiatrists
routinely perform. Instead, the record reveals only
conversations from therapy sessions. See AR at
1104-16. ALJ Morris thus did not err in rejecting Ms.
LaRae's opinions as too heavily based on Plaintiff's
Morris similarly did not err in rejecting Ms. LaRae's GAF
scores. The American Psychiatric Association dropped the GAF
score from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of
Mental Disorders, 5th edition, 2013, because it lacked
clarity and had questionable value in routine practice.
See Golden, 29 Vet. App. at 224. ALJ Morris ...