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Kelsy E. H. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 22, 2019

KELSY E. H., 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 child's insurance benefits and supplemental security income (“SSI”). 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 Dr. Keith Krueger's medical opinion. Had the ALJ properly considered Dr. Krueger's opinion, 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 the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On December 31, 2015, Plaintiff filed applications for child's insurance benefits and SSI. See Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (“AR”) 15. Plaintiff alleges disability as of July 28, 2011. AR 15. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 15. A hearing was held before ALJ Gerald J. Hill on November 14, 2017. See AR 15. In a decision dated April 9, 2018, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 36. 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 15; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

         In Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by failing to properly: (1) evaluate the medical opinion evidence; and (2) evaluate the lay witness opinions. Dkt. 10, 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 considered the medical opinion evidence.

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in his evaluation of the opinion evidence submitted by Drs. Keith Krueger, Kimberly Wheeler, Patricia Gardner, Alysa Ruddell, Luci Carstens, and Ms. Sarah Magnuson-White. Dkt. 10, p. 8.

         A. Dr. Krueger

         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 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)).

         Dr. Krueger saw Plaintiff on three separate occasions. AR 30-31. Plaintiff first visited Dr. Krueger on October 3, 2012, where he completed a psychological evaluation of Plaintiff. AR 742-780. Among other things, Dr. Krueger opined Plaintiff had moderate to severe limitations in mental functioning, which included severe limitations with completing a normal workday/workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms. AR 772. On March 19, 2014, Dr. Krueger completed a psychological evaluation of plaintiff, and opined Plaintiff had moderate to marked limitations in mental functioning, including marked difficulties with adapting to changes in routine work settings and completing a normal workday/workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms. AR 754-755. Finally, on February 4, 2015, Dr. Krueger completed a psychological evaluation of Plaintiff, and opined Plaintiff had no to mild limitations with understanding, remembering, and persisting in tasks following very short simple instructions. AR 744. Dr. Krueger opined Plaintiff had moderate to marked limitations in mental functioning, including marked difficulties with ...


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