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Courtney R. M. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 15, 2020

COURTNEY R. M., 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. 2.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when she improperly discounted the opinions of Drs. Sylvia Thorpe and Carl Epp. 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 September 8, 2014, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability as of December 15, 2011. See Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (“AR”) 15. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 15. A video hearing was held before ALJ Laura Valente on March 20, 2018. See AR 15. In a decision dated May 10, 2018, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 28. 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 13; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

         In the Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to properly evaluate the medical evidence; and (2) improperly determining Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and failing to meet her burden that Plaintiff is not disabled at Step Five. Dkt. 10.

         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 evaluated the medical evidence.

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinions of Drs. Thorpe and Epp. Dkt. 10, pp. 5-7.

         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)).

         A. Dr. Thorpe

         Dr. Thorpe completed a psychological evaluation of Plaintiff on two separate occasions, both at the request of Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (“DSHS”). AR 411-229. In May 2014, Dr. Thorpe opined Plaintiff had no or mild limitations in understanding, carrying out, recalling, and persisting in simple instructions, and in maintaining appropriate behavior in a work setting. AR 417. Dr. Thorpe also opined Plaintiff had severe limitations in ...


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