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Marlina J.-R. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 16, 2019

MARLINA J.-R., Plaintiff,


          BRIAN A. TSUCHIDA Chief United States Magistrate Judge.;

         Plaintiff Marlina J.-R. seeks review of the denial of her applications for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. She contends the ALJ erred by rejecting her testimony and the opinions of examining psychologists and a state agency consultant, finding her only moderately limited in her ability to adapt or manage herself, and rejecting the lay witness evidence. Dkt. 12. The Court REVERSES the Commissioner's final decision and REMANDS the matter for further administrative proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         A. Plaintiff's testimony

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by rejecting her testimony without providing valid reasons. Dkt. 12 at 3. Where, as here, the ALJ does not find that the claimant was malingering, the ALJ must give clear and convincing reasons to reject her testimony. See Vertigan v. Halter, 260 F.3d 1044, 1049 (9th Cir. 2001). An ALJ does this by making specific findings supported by substantial evidence. “General findings are insufficient; rather, the ALJ must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints.” Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 834 (9th Cir. 1996).

         The ALJ found that while the record showed that plaintiff, whose medically determinable severe impairments are bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder, “experienced substantial mental distress and symptoms during various periods, ” it did not show that “these complications” lasted for a continuous period of 12 months or longer. Tr. 22. Specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff's psychological complications primarily occurred between July 8, 2015, the alleged onset date, and spring of 2016, when the record provides substantial evidence of recovery, and during a recurrence of acute distress in May and June 2017, after which the record described good recovery in August and September 2017. Tr. 23. The ALJ thus concluded that plaintiff's most severe symptoms did not meet the durational requirements of 12 consecutive months or longer for a finding of disability. Id.

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ appeared to accept her complaints as consistent with the record during the months he described as periods of “substantial mental distress” and “acute distress, ” but rejected her testimony because her symptoms were not identical in their severity from month to month, a reason she argues is neither clear nor convincing. Dkt. 12 at 4. The court agrees.

         The Ninth Circuit has held that in the context of mental health issues, it is error to reject a claimant's testimony “merely because symptoms wax and wane in the course of treatment.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1017 (9th Cir. 2014). This is because cycles of improvement and debilitating symptoms are common in the context of severe mental impairments. Id. For this reason, “it is error for an ALJ to pick out a few isolated instances of improvement over a period of months or years and to treat them as a basis for concluding a claimant is capable of working.” Id. Instead, the ALJ must take care to interpret reports of “improvement” within the context of the claimant's overall well-being and the nature of her symptoms. The ALJ may not simply interpret reports of “improvement” in mental health symptoms to mean the impairments no longer seriously affect the claimant's ability to function in a workplace, particularly where the “improvement” takes place in the context of ongoing treatment and limiting environmental stressors. Id.

         The ALJ here did precisely what Garrison proscribes. The ALJ accepted plaintiff's testimony about the nature and severity of her symptoms during periods of substantial mental distress but rejected it as inconsistent with the evidence during what the ALJ found to be periods of improvement. In so doing, the ALJ failed to consider the cyclical nature of plaintiff's mental impairments, the nature of reports of improvement within the context of the course of plaintiff's symptoms and treatment, and the fact that even during her periods of “improvement, ” plaintiff was undergoing treatment and restricting her exposure to environmental stressors.

         For example, during the period of improvement from spring 2016 until April 2017, the ALJ noted plaintiff's November 2016 statement that she was not purging more than once every two weeks, which the ALJ found significant improvement from her hearing testimony that she was purging 10 times per day.[1] Tr. 22. The ALJ also noted reports from plaintiff and her providers that her mood was improving and/or stable with medication. Id. But the ALJ did not consider these reports within the context of her overall well-being, the nature of her symptoms, and her ongoing treatment.

         Similarly, the ALJ noted reports from August 2017 that plaintiff was “doing well in therapy” after her discharge from inpatient treatment, along with plaintiff's statements that her medications were helping and her anxiety was “manageable.” Tr. 23. But again, the ALJ did not consider the fact that plaintiff left inpatient treatment only because her insurance would not cover a longer stay and when she left, she transitioned to intensive, daily outpatient treatment and mental health counseling.

         Here, as in Garrison, the ALJ improperly singled out two periods of temporary well-being and relied on those instances to discredit plaintiff. This was not a clear or convincing reason to reject plaintiff's testimony. The ALJ gave no other reason to reject plaintiff's testimony, and indeed seemed to accept her testimony that her symptoms were debilitating during the periods of “severe” symptoms. The ALJ erred in rejecting her testimony.

         B. Medical opinions

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinions of examining doctors Dan Neims, Psy.D., and Keri Tarantino, Psy.D., and consulting doctor Kent Reade, Ph.D. Dkt. 12 at 9-12. In general, the ALJ must give specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting an examining doctor's opinion that is contradicted by another doctor, and clear and ...

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