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Sharleen H. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 30, 2019

SHARLEEN H., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

          John C. Coughenour, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by rejecting her testimony and four medical opinions. Dkt. 11. As discussed below, 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).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is currently 62 years old and has worked as a grant writer, development director, and executive director. Dkt. 7, Admin. Record (AR) 70, 24. Plaintiff applied for benefits in July 2015, alleging disability as of January 1, 2014. AR 70. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. AR 81, 96. After the ALJ conducted a hearing in May 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR 30-69, 11-24.

         II. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found that from the January 2014 alleged onset date through the December 2015 date last insured:

Step one: Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity.
Step two: Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: mild degenerative disc disease, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Step three: These impairments did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[2]
Residual Functional Capacity: Plaintiff could perform light work, standing and/or walking six hours and sitting six hours per day. She could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and could occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She could frequently handle, finger, and stoop, and occasionally kneel, crouch, and crawl. She must avoid excessive vibration and concentrated pulmonary irritants or hazards.
Step four: Plaintiff can perform past relevant work as a grant writer and an executive director, as generally performed.
Step five: The ALJ did not reach step five.

AR 13-24. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 1-3.

         III. DISCUSSION

         This Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of Social Security benefits only if the ALJ's decision is based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674 (9th Cir. 2017). “Substantial evidence” is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The ALJ is responsible for evaluating evidence and resolving conflicts. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). While the Court is required to examine the record as a whole, it may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954, 957 (9th Cir. 2002). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one interpretation, the ALJ's interpretation must be upheld if rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680-81 (9th Cir. 2005). This Court “may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012).

         A. Medical Opinions

         A treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to greater weight than an examining physician's opinion, and an examining physician's opinion is entitled to greater weight than a nonexamining physician's opinion. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014). An ALJ may only reject the uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining doctor by giving “clear and convincing” reasons. Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017). Even if a treating or examining doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor's opinion, an ALJ may only reject it by stating “specific and legitimate” reasons. Id. The ALJ can meet this standard by providing “a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Id. (citation ...


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