United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION AND
DISMISSING THE CASE WITH PREJUDICE
A. TSUCHIDA, Chief United States Magistrate Judge.
appeals the denial of her application for Disability
Insurance Benefits. She contends the ALJ erred by
(1) declining to adopt as a functional
limitation the statement by examining psychologist Diana
Cook, Ph.D., that “[c]laimant likely is not able to
handle a high level of stress at this time, ” and
(2) discounting plaintiff's testimony
about her inability to handle stress. Dkt. 8; Tr. 580. The
Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final
decision and DISMISSES the case with
is currently 67 years old and stopped working as a medical
secretary after she had two strokes in May and June of 2016.
She applied for benefits, alleging disability as of May 6,
2016. In a May 2018 decision, the ALJ determined that
plaintiff had the severe impairments of late effects
of cerebrovascular accident (“CVA”), diabetes
mellitus, hypertension, and
obesity; that plaintiff had the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform
light work with additional physical restrictions;
that plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a
medical secretary; and that plaintiff was not disabled. Tr.
Court will reverse the ALJ's decision only if it was not
supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole or
if the ALJ applied the wrong legal standard. Molina v.
Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012). The
ALJ's decision may not be reversed on account of an error
that is harmless. Id. at 1111. Where the evidence is
susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the
Court must uphold the Commissioner's interpretation.
Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir.
has failed to demonstrate that the ALJ's decision
(1) not to include in the RFC assessment Dr.
Cook's reference to an inability to handle a high amount
of stress “at this time” and (2)
to discount plaintiff's self-report of an inability to
handle stress was unreasonable, unsupported by substantial
evidence, or based on harmful legal error.
Examining Psychologist Dr. Cook's Statement About High
argues that the ALJ erred by affording significant weight to
the opinion of examining psychologist Dr. Cook yet failing to
account in the RFC assessment for Dr. Cook's statement
about plaintiff's likely inability to handle high stress
“at this time.” The Court finds that the ALJ
erred by not more fully discussing Dr. Cook's statement
regarding plaintiff's inability to handle stress.
Nonetheless, this error was harmless because the ALJ
supported the conclusion that plaintiff suffered from no
severe mental impairments with substantial evidence and this
conclusion remains unchallenged.
Cook conducted a psychological evaluation of plaintiff in
mid-August 2016, i.e., a little more than two months after
plaintiff's second stroke in early-June 2016. Tr. 573.
Dr. Cook diagnosed status post-stroke and depressed mood
secondary to the stroke. Tr. 579. Dr. Cook noted that
plaintiff seemed to be faring “quite well”
following her strokes, “despite a mildly
depressed mood.” Tr. 579 (emphasis added). Dr. Cook
noted that plaintiff reported a “fairly active
lifestyle, ” though that lifestyle was “quieter
and less interactive than when she was working.” Tr.
579-80. Dr. Cook opined that plaintiff's “prognosis
for re-gaining psychological well-being is good, ” and
that plaintiff “might benefit from some supportive
psychotherapy, depending on her continued positive recovery
trajectory.” Tr. 580. In full, Dr. Cook's
functional assessment was:
Claimant is able to handle her own finances. She is able to
take instruction, complete simple and repetitive, as well as
more complex tasks during the intellectual portion of the
exam. She seems quite able to get along with others. Claimant
… is intelligent and seemingly well able to complete
tasks without intervention or special instruction.
Claimant likely is not able to handle a high level of
stress at this time.
Tr. 580 (emphasis added).
accurately restated Dr. Cook's functional assessment,
including Dr. Cook's statement: “Claimant is not
able to handle a high level of stress at this
time.” Tr. 21. Moreover, the ALJ gave
considerable weight to Dr. Cook's opinion. Tr. 21
(quoting Tr. 580). The ALJ did not, however, include any
reference to plaintiff's inability to handle stress, or
any related mental limitation, in the RFC assessment. The
Court agrees with plaintiff that the ALJ erred by not
explicitly stating why Dr. Cook's statement regarding
plaintiff's inability to handle high stress “at
this time” was rejected while Dr. Cook's opinion
was otherwise given considerable weight. Nonetheless, the
Court finds this error to be harmless because the ALJ clearly
determined that Dr. Cook's reference to plaintiff's
inability to handle high stress was a time-delimited, rather
than continuing, limitation that had resolved itself to a
degree that did not impede the ability to perform work.
accurately noted that during Dr. Cook's mental status
examination, plaintiff's thought content, orientation,
memory, fund of knowledge and information, calculations,
concentration, abstract thinking, similarities and
differences, and judgment and insights were all normal. Tr.
21 (citing Tr. 575). The ALJ observed that other mental
status examinations showed that plaintiff had a consistent
mood and manner that was appropriate. Tr. 21 (citing Tr. 435
(6/8/2016), 586 (11/16/2016), 597 (8/18/2016), 640
(11/16/2016), 659 (1/6/2017)). The ALJ observed that by
January 2017, plaintiff reported no depression, was in no
distress, and had an appropriate mood. Tr. 21 (citing Tr.
660). The ALJ considered four broad areas of areas of mental
functioning-understanding, remembering, or applying
information; interacting with others; concentrating,
persisting, or maintaining pace; and adapting or managing
oneself-and determined that plaintiff had no more than a mild
limitation in any area. Thus, viewed in the context of the
ALJ's unchallenged analysis that plaintiff suffered from
no severe mental impairments, it was reasonable for the ALJ
to have determined sub silentio that Dr. Cook's
reference to an inability to handle a high level of stress
“at this time” meant that such a limitation was
temporary in nature. See generally Rounds v. Commissioner
of SSA, 807 F.3d 996, 1006 (9th Cir. 2015) (“An
ALJ may rationally rely on specific imperatives regarding a
claimant's limitations, rather than
recommendations.”). That the ALJ concluded that
plaintiff's mental impairments had ...