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Shaun N. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 16, 2020

Shaun N., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          THERESA L. FRICKE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of his applications[1] for disability insurance and supplemental security income 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.

         I. ISSUES FOR REVIEW

         A. Did the ALJ commit harmful error in rejecting the opinions of treating physicians Dinelle Pineda, M.D., and Jeffrey Dassel, M.D.?

         B. Did the ALJ commit harmful error in discounting plaintiff's testimony regarding the severity of his physical impairments?

         II. DISCUSSION

         The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to determine, at step four, whether the plaintiff can perform past relevant work, and if necessary, at step five to determine whether the plaintiff can adjust to other work. Kennedy v. Colvin, 738 F.3d 1172, 1175 (9th Cir. 2013). The ALJ has the burden of proof at step five to show that a significant number of jobs that the claimant can perform exist in the national economy. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1099 (9th Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).

         The 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 Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). This requires “‘more than a mere scintilla'” of evidence. Id.

         The 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 Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1225-26 (9th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted).

         A. The ALJ Erred in Rejecting Dr. Pineda's and Dr. Dassel's Opinions

         The ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of 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. Id.

         Dr. Pineda examined plaintiff on October 23, 2015. AR 1005-10. Dr. Pineda opined that plaintiff was markedly limited in his ability to sit, stand, walk, lift, and carry due to hip and knee arthritis. AR 1006. Dr. Pineda opined that plaintiff was unable to meet the demands of even sedentary work. AR 1007.

         Dr. Dassel was Plaintiff's treating doctor. See AR 999-1001, 1022-1141. Dr. Dassel opined that plaintiff could stand/walk for less than two hours in an eight-hour day, sit for less than two hours in an eight-hour day, and lift or carry up to ten pounds rarely. AR 1015. Dr. Dassel opined that plaintiff would need unscheduled rest breaks, and would be absent three or more days per month due to his pain. AR 1015-16.

         The ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Pineda's and Dr. Dassel's opinions. AR 24. The ALJ reasoned that the doctors' opinions (1) were inconsistent with the objective medical evidence, (2) were inconsistent with plaintiff's receipt of primarily conservative treatment, and (3) relied on plaintiff's report of factors contributing to his pain, which were not consistent. AR 25. The ALJ further reasoned ...


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