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Meriah G. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 20, 2019

MERIAH G., 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 applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). 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. 7.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when she rejected the opinions of treating doctors William Welsh, D.O., and Jonathan Grymaloski, M.D., regarding Plaintiff's physical impairments, and Plaintiff's testimony on her physical symptoms. The ALJ did not err when she rejected the opinions of Dr. Welsh, David French, M.D., Holly Chatain, Psy.D., Nancy Woods, Psy.D., Sylvia Thorpe, Ph.D., and Anselm Parlatore, M.D., on Plaintiff's mental impairments, and Plaintiff's testimony on her mental symptoms. Had the ALJ properly considered the evidence regarding Plaintiff's physical impairments, the ALJ may have found Plaintiff disabled or may have included additional limitations in the residual functional capacity assessment. This matter is therefore reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On August 25, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of July 8, 2011. See Dkt. 11, Admin. Record (“AR”) 59, 103-09. The application was denied on initial administrative review. See AR 59-70. A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Patrick Hannon on October 21, 2013. See AR 43-58. In a decision date December 13, 2013, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 25-36. The Appeals Council denied review on November 21, 2014. See AR 5-8.

         Plaintiff sought review of the denial of his application before this Court. See AR 753-55. On November 9, 2015, Magistrate Judge Karen L. Strombom entered an order reversing the ALJ's decision and remanding for further proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See AR 780-86. Judge Strombom found that the ALJ erred in rejecting Plaintiff's testimony as contradicted by her daily activities. See id.

         On March 17, 2015, while her appeal was pending before the Court, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI and DIB. See AR 762, 913-21. That claim was denied on initial review. See AR 762-79. The Appeals Council ordered these new claims to be consolidated with Plaintiff's earlier claim, and remanded them all to an ALJ. See AR 790.

         On July 17, 2018, ALJ Stephanie Martz held a second hearing. See AR 688-722. ALJ Martz issued a decision on August 31, 2018, once again finding Plaintiff not disabled. See AR 650-76. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See AR 636-39; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.984(b)(2), 416.1484(b)(2).

         In Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to properly weigh the medical evidence; and (2) discounting Plaintiff's testimony. Dkt. 14, p. 1.

         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 Erred in Weighing the Medical Evidence.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in rejecting multiple medical opinions. See Dkt. 14, p. 4-18. Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in rejecting opinions on her physical impairments from Dr. Welsh and Dr. Grymaloski. See Dkt. 14, p. 4-10. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting opinions on her mental impairments from Dr. Welsh, Dr. French, Dr. Chatain, Dr. Woods, Dr. Thorpe, and Dr. Parlatore. See Dkt. 14, p. 10-18. The ALJ addressed these opinions in groups, analyzing the opinions on Plaintiff's physical impairments first, and then analyzing the opinions on Plaintiff's mental impairments. See AR 666-73. The Court will do the same.

         When reviewing medical evidence, an ALJ must ordinarily give controlling weight to the opinions of a treating doctor. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). The ALJ may nonetheless reject treating doctors' opinions, but must explain her reasoning. See Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998). When the treating doctor's opinions are contradicted-as the opinions here are-the ALJ must give “‘specific and legitimate reasons' supported by substantial evidence in the record” for rejecting those opinions. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830 (quoting Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1983)). The same standard applies with respect to examining doctors. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31 (citing Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1043 (9th Cir. 1995)).

         A. Physical Impairments - Dr. Welsh and Dr. Grymaloski

         Dr. Welsh and Dr. Grymaloski are Plaintiff's treating doctors. See AR 631, 1404. On June 4, 2012, Dr. Welsh completed a physical capacities evaluation, in which he opined that Plaintiff could sit for two hours in an eight-hour day, and stand/walk for one hour. AR 560. He opined that Plaintiff would need to be able to alternate sitting and standing at will throughout the day. Id. Dr. Welsh opined that Plaintiff could occasionally lift or carry up to five pounds. AR 561. Dr. Welsh opined that Plaintiff had postural and environmental limitations, as well. Id.

         On March 22, 2014, Dr. Welsh completed an impairment questionnaire, opining that Plaintiff had different limitations than before. See AR 631-35. Dr. Welsh opined that Plaintiff could sit for less than an hour in an eight-hour work day, and stand/walk for less than an hour. AR 633. Dr. Welsh opined that Plaintiff had limitations in grasping and manipulation. AR 634. But he opined that Plaintiff could occasionally lift or carry up to 10 pounds. AR 633. Dr. Welsh opined that ...


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