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Libby L. A. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 30, 2019

LIBBY L. A., 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 application 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. 2.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when he improperly gave partial weight to the opinions of Doctor Jim Rice, Doctor Gary Schuster, and Ms. Christina Casady. Had the ALJ properly considered these opinions, 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 March 31, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of January 20, 2012. See Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (“AR”) 49. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 49. A hearing was held before ALJ Allen G. Erickson on August 17, 2017. See AR 49. In a decision dated December 29, 2017, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 58. 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 49; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

         In the Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by: (1) improperly evaluating the medical evidence; and (2) failing to support his formation of the RFC and his evaluation of the Vocational Expert's (“VE”) testimony with substantial evidence. Dkt. 12, p. 2. Plaintiff requests remand for an award of benefits. Id. at 10.

         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 Dr. Rice, Dr. Schuster, and Ms. Casady. Dkt. 12, pp. 7-9.

         A. Dr. Rice

         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. Rice completed Washington State Department of Labor and Industries Insurer Activity Prescription Forms on May 20, 2014, June 30, 2014, August 4, 2014, and September 18, 2014. AR 625, 633, 638, 645. Dr. Rice opined Plaintiff may perform modified duty, in that Plaintiff can never crawl, reach overhead, or engage in fingering or handling activities. AR 625, 633, 638, 645. Dr. Rice further opined Plaintiff can occasionally climb ladders and stairs, bend, and stoop. AR 633, 638, ...


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