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Melissa H. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 19, 2019

MELISSA 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 application for a period of disability and 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 she failed to provide germane reasons for giving minimal weight to Ms. Amanda Allender's opinion, and when she failed to provide specific, legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence for giving minimal weight to the opinions of Drs. Sue Romanick and Marcia Jordan. Had the ALJ properly considered these opinions, the 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 August 17, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of March 6, 2013, through March 31, 2014. See Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (“AR”) 18, 20. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 18. A hearing was held before ALJ Laura Valente on November 7, 2017. See AR 18. In a decision dated May 30, 2018, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 29. 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 18; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

         In the Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to properly evaluate the opinions of Ms. Allender and Drs. Romanick and Jordan; (2) failing to provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony; and (3) failing to provide germane reasons for rejecting the testimony of Plaintiff's husband. Dkt. 10, pp. 3-16.

         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 asserts the ALJ failed to provide germane reasons for rejecting Ms. Allender's opinion and failed to provide specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting Drs. Romanick's and Jordan's opinions. Dkt. 10, pp. 3-16.

         A. Ms. Allender

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to provide germane reasons for rejecting Ms. Allender's opinion.

         In assessing an acceptable medical source, an 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. 1995) (citing Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502, 506 (9th Cir. 1990)); Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988). 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 830-831 (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 [her] 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)). “Other medical source” testimony “is competent evidence that an ALJ must take into account, ” unless the ALJ “expressly determines to disregard such testimony and gives ...


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