United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
MICHAEL G. C. Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S
DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS
Theresa L. Fricke, United States Magistrate Judge.
has brought this matter for judicial review of
defendant's denial of his applications (filed on June 21,
2013) for disability insurance and supplemental security
income (SSI) benefits. The parties have consented to have
this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. 28
U.S.C. § 636(c); Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73;
Local Rule MJR 13. For the reasons set forth below, the Court
reverses defendant's decision to deny benefits and
remands this matter for further administrative proceedings.
ISSUES FOR REVEW
Whether the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical evidence;
Whether the ALJ erred in evaluating plaintiff's
Whether the ALJ erred in evaluating the lay evidence; and
Whether the ALJ erred in assessing plaintiff's residual
functional capacity (RFC) and erred by basing his step five
finding on his erroneous RFC assessment.
Court will uphold an ALJ's decision unless: (1) the
decision is based on legal error, or (2) the decision is not
supported by substantial evidence. Revels v.
Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017).
Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant evidence
as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.'” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139
S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co.
v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). This requires
“more than a mere scintilla, ” of evidence.
Court must consider the administrative record as a whole.
Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir.
2014). It must weigh both the evidence that supports, and
evidence that does not support, the ALJ's conclusion.
Id. The Court considers in its review only the
reasons the ALJ identified and may not affirm for a different
reason. Id. at 1010. Furthermore,
“[l]ong-standing principles of administrative law
require us to review the ALJ's decision based on the
reasoning and actual findings offered by the ALJ-not post hoc
rationalizations that attempt to intuit what the adjudicator
may have been thinking.” Bray v. Comm'r of
SSA, 554 F.3d 1219, 1225-26 (9th Cir. 2009) (citations
The ALJ's Evaluation of Medical Opinions
challenges the ALJ's evaluation of the medical evidence
in the administrative record. Dkt. 12 at 3- 8. Specifically,
plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in evaluating the
opinions of Terilee Wingate Ph.D., Brett Trowbridge, Ph.D.,
Johann Gurnell, ARNP, Brent Packer, M.D., Jennifer Koch,
Psy.D., Kristine Harrison. Psy.D., Gary Gaffield, D.O., John
Kwock M.D., and David Jarmon M.D. Id. For the
reasons set forth below the ALJ erred in ignoring the
opinions of Dr. Wingate and Dr. Trowbridge. The ALJ also
erred in evaluating Dr. Koch's medical opinion.
must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for
rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or
examining physician. Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d
664, 675 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Ryan v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008)). When a
treating or examining physician's opinion is
contradicted, an ALJ must provide specific and legitimate
reasons for rejecting it. Id. In either case,
substantial evidence must support the ALJ's findings.
Dr. Wingate and Dr. Trowbridge
argues that the ALJ committed error by not evaluating the
opinions of Dr. Wingate and Dr. Trowbridge. Dkt. 12 at 3-4.
Defendant argues that the ALJ did not make an error because
SSI benefits are not payable prior to the application date
and per Social Security regulations, the ALJ was not required
to review evidence outside of the 12-month period preceding
the relevant period - June 21, 2013, the application date.
Dkt. 13 at 14-16. Defendant further argues that an ALJ may
reasonably reject medical opinions because they predate the
relevant time period being considered. Id. at 14-15.
to 20 C.F.R. 416.912(b)(1), before making a determination
regarding disability, the Social Security Administration,
“will develop [the claimant's] complete medical
history for at least the 12 months preceding the month in
which [claimant] filed [the] application unless there is a
reason to believe that development of an earlier period is
necessary.” Further, a complete medical history is
considered the “medical source(s) covering at least the
12 months preceding the month in which [claimant] filed their
application.” 20 C.F.R. 416.912(b)(1).
the Social Security Administration is only required to
include medical sources for the 12 months preceding the
application date in the record, the ALJ is required to
evaluate all medical opinions actually included in the
record. 20 C.F.R. 404.1527 (b)-(c). Although the ALJ is not
bound by every medical opinion in the record, the ALJ must
consider all medical opinion evidence. Tommasetti v.
Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008). An ALJ may
find medical opinions less persuasive because they predate
the relevant period. Carmickle v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.
Admin., 533 F.3d 1155, 1165 (9th Cir. 2008). However,
the Court may only review the ALJ's decision based on the
reasoning actually offered by the ALJ, not post-hoc
rationalizations. Bray v. Comm'r of SSA, 554
F.3d 1219, 1225-26 (9th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted).
Accordingly, the ALJ erred in ignoring the opinions of Dr.
Wingate and Dr. Trowbridge.
Ms. Gurnell and Dr. Packer
argues that the ALJ erred in his evaluation of the medical
opinions of Ms. Gurnell and Dr. Packer. Dkt. 12 at 4-5. The
ALJ gave both opinions little weight because they “were
rendered prior to the relevant period of adjudication and
therefore do not reflect the claimant's relevant
functional status” and because they were inconsistent
with more recent medical examination opinions. AR 33.
Plaintiff argues that the fact that the opinions were
rendered before the current application period cannot justify
the weight given and that the opinions were not inconsistent
with Dr. Gaffield's findings. Dkt. 12 at 5.
may discredit medical opinions predating the relevant period
because they are of limited relevance. Carmickle,
533 F.3d at 1165. Here, the ALJ expressly found that the
opinions of Ms. Gurnell and Dr. Packer were of little
relevance because they predated the relevant period being
considered. Additionally, weighing different medical opinions
to determine inconsistencies and the relevance of any
inconsistencies is within the responsibility of the ALJ.
Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d
595, 603 (9th Cir. 1999). Finally, plaintiff provides no
explanation of how the ALJ erred in weighing any
inconsistencies in the medical record other than the bald
assertion that the opinions were not “meaningfully
inconsistent.” Dkt. 12. For the foregoing reasons the
Court will not disturb the ALJ's evaluation of Ms.
Gurnell and Dr. Packer's opinions.
also challenges the ALJ's evaluation of Dr. Koch's
opinion. Dkt. 12 at 5. The ALJ gave Dr. Koch's opinion
little weight because,
[w]hile the opinions acknowledge the presence of a medically
determinable depressive disorder, the functional analysis is
internally inconsistent as the claimant is speculated to have
the ability to complete simple, even detailed instructions
without supervision but is also speculated to have a marked
impairment in his ability to complete a normal workday due to
AR 31. The ALJ went on to explain that the opinion that
plaintiff could complete simple work tasks on a regular basis
without supervision was supported by the claimant's noted
progress through treatment as well as other medical
examinations in the record. Id. Plaintiff argues
that the ALJ did not have a basis to refer to Dr. Koch's
opinion as “speculation” and that the ALJ was
incorrect in determining that the opinion was internally
inconsistent. Dkt. 12 at 6.
plaintiff does not point to anything in the ALJ's
decision to indicate that he dismissed Dr. Koch's opinion
as speculation. In his evaluation of Dr. Koch's opinion,
the ALJ used a number of words to describe Dr. Koch
expressing her medical opinion, including “opined,
” “According to Dr. Koch, ”
“estimated, ” “assessed, ” and
“acknowledge.” AR 31. The ALJ's use of the
word “speculate” to describe Dr. Koch's