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Joanna M. G. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 9, 2020

JOANNA M. 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 supplemental security income (“SSI”) 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. 3.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when he failed to discuss significant and probative evidence contained in Dr. Kevin Morris's opinion and in a portion of Dr. Michael Brown's opinion. 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 December 8, 2009, Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and DIB, alleging disability as of April 15, 2008. See Dkt. 14, Administrative Record (“AR”) 996, 906. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 906. A hearing was held before ALJ Scott Morris on December 14, 2011. See AR 355. In a decision dated January 5, 2012, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 355. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, and Plaintiff filed a civil action to the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, which remanded the matter to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings. See AR 355. On October 22, 2014, the Appeals Council vacated the decision and remanded the case to an ALJ for further proceedings. See AR 355.

         A new hearing was held before ALJ Gary Elliott on January 22, 2015. AR 355-368. On February 24, 2015, ALJ Elliott found Plaintiff not disabled. AR 368. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and Plaintiff filed a civil action to the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. See AR 995. The Court reversed ALJ Elliott's decision and remanded the case for a new hearing. AR 1020. A new hearing was held before ALJ David Johnson on May 4, 2018. AR 934-960. In a decision dated November 19, 2018, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. AR 921-922. Plaintiff did not request review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, making the ALJ's November 19, 2018 decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See AR 906. Plaintiff now appeals the ALJ's November 19, 2018 decision finding Plaintiff not disabled.[1]

         In the Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to properly evaluate the medical evidence; (2) failing to properly evaluate Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony; (3) failing to properly evaluate the lay witness testimony; and (4) improperly determining Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Dkt. 13. Plaintiff requests remand for an award of benefits. Dkt. 13, pp. 18-19.

         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 contends the ALJ erred in his evaluation of the medical opinion evidence submitted by Drs. Morris and Brown. Dkt. 13, pp. 3-6.

         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 his 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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