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Linda S. W. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 28, 2019

LINDA S. W., 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 her application for 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. 4.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when he failed to properly consider a portion of Dr. Alysa Ruddell's opinion. Had the ALJ properly considered Dr. Ruddell's entire opinion, Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) may have included additional limitations. The ALJ's errors are, 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 Social Security (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On April 17, 2015, Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and childhood disability benefits, alleging disability as of January 1, 2010. See Dkt. 6, Administrative Record (“AR”) 20. The applications were denied on initial administrative review and reconsideration. See AR 20. A hearing was held before ALJ Joanne E. Dantonio on March 8, 2017. See AR 46-60. At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to June 28, 2012. AR 50. A second hearing was held before the ALJ on August 16, 2017. See AR 61-100. During the second hearing, Plaintiff withdrew her application for childhood disability benefits and continued on only the SSI application, with an alleged onset date of April 17, 2015, the date the application was filed. AR 64-65. In a decision dated December 19, 2017, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 20-39. 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 837-41; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

         In the Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ committed harmful error when she failed to properly consider the medical opinion of Dr. Alysa Ruddell, Ph.D. Dkt. 8, 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

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in his evaluation of Dr. Alysa Ruddell, Ph.D.'s medical opinion. Dkt. 8, pp. 2-4. 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)).

         “[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 v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012-13 (9th Cir. 2014) (citing Nguyen v. Chater, 100 F.3d 1462, 1464 (9th Cir.1996)). As the Ninth Circuit has stated:

To say that medical opinions are not supported by sufficient objective findings or are contrary to the preponderant conclusions mandated by the objective findings does not achieve the level of specificity our prior cases have required, even when the objective factors are listed seriatim. The ALJ must do more than offer his conclusions. He must set forth his own interpretations and explain why they, rather than the doctors', are correct.

Embrey, 849 F.2d at 421-22 (internal footnote omitted).

         On August 29, 2016, Dr. Ruddell, an examining psychologist, completed a Psychological/Psychiatric Evaluation of Plaintiff. AR 634-38. Dr. Ruddell conducted a clinical interview and a mental status examination (“MSE”) of Plaintiff. AR 634-38. She documented her clinical findings and completed a ...


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