Haynesworth v. Colvin

Filing 31

Order by Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero denying without further briefing 30 Motion to Alter Judgment. (jcslc2S, COURT STAFF) (Filed on 9/7/2017)

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1 2 3 4 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 5 NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 6 LONDALE HAYNESWORTH, 7 Case No. 16-cv-04006-JCS Plaintiff, 8 v. ORDER DENYING MOTION TO ALTER OR AMEND JUDGMENT 9 NANCY A. BERRYHILL, 10 Re: Dkt. No. 30 Defendant. United States District Court Northern District of California 11 12 I. INTRODUCTION The Court previously granted a motion for summary judgment by Plaintiff Londale 13 14 Haynesworth, reversed the decision of Defendant Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of 15 Social Security (the ―Commissioner‖) denying Haynesworth Social Security benefits, and issued 16 an order remanding to the Commissioner with an instruction to award benefits pursuant to the 17 Ninth Circuit’s credit-as-true rule. The Commissioner now moves to alter or amend judgment 18 under Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In the interest of efficiency and to avoid 19 an unnecessary expenditure of attorneys’ fees at public expense, the Court finds the matter suitable 20 for resolution on the Commissioner’s motion alone, without further briefing. The motion is 21 DENIED for the reasons discussed below.1 22 II. BACKGROUND This order assumes for the parties’ familiarity with the facts and procedural history of the 23 24 case. A more detailed summary of Haynesworth’s medical history and the procedural background 25 of his efforts to obtain Social Security benefits is included in the Court’s previous order granting 26 Haynesworth’s motion for summary judgment. See generally Order on Cross Mots. for Summ. J. 27 1 28 The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge for all purposes pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). 1 (―S.J. Order,‖ dkt. 27).2 2 A. 3 Haynesworth, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, initially filed an application for Administrative Proceedings 4 social security benefits in June of 2010, alleging disability beginning in 2007. See Administrative 5 Record (―AR,‖ dkt. 19) at 90; S.J. Order at 2. After that application was denied following a 6 hearing before an administrative law judge (―ALJ‖), Haynesworth filed a second application in 7 May of 2013, alleging disability beginning immediately following the denial of his first 8 application in March of 2013. AR at 20, 99; S.J. Order at 2. The second application was denied 9 on initial review, denied on reconsideration, and denied after a hearing before ALJ Nancy Lisewski. AR at 17–30; S.J. Order at 2. ALJ Lisewski adopted the previous ALJ’s assessment of 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 Haynesworth’s residual functional capacity, crediting state agency consulting doctors’ opinions 12 that Haynesworth was not disabled and giving little weight to opinions of Haynesworth’s treating 13 and examining doctors. See generally AR at 20–30; S.J. Order at 22–28. After the Social Security 14 Administration Appeals Council denied Haynesworth’s request for review, see AR at 1–3, 15 Haynesworth filed the present action in this Court. 16 B. 17 On July 31, 2017, the Court granted Haynesworth’s motion for summary judgment, denied Previous Order Granting Summary Judgment 18 the Commissioner’s cross motion for summary judgment, and issued an order remanding the 19 matter to the Commissioner with instructions to award benefits. See generally S.J. Order. The Court held that the ALJ failed to present specific and legitimate reasons for giving 20 21 little weight to the opinion of Dr. James Liles, who treated Haynesworth. Id. at 36–39. Contrary 22 to the ALJ’s statement that Dr. Liles’ opinion failed to reference his treatment notes, the opinion at 23 issue in fact stated that Dr. Liles relied on mental status examinations and clinical interviews (as 24 described in his treatment notes), and the Court held that Haynesworth’s normal performance on 25 in-office tests was not a sufficient reason for the ALJ to discount conclusions that Dr. Liles drew 26 27 28 2 Haynesworth v. Berryhill, No. 16-cv-04006-JCS, 2017 WL 3232481 (N.D. Cal. July 31, 2017). Citations herein to specific pages of the Court’s previous order refer to the version filed in the Court’s ECF docket. 2 1 from clinical interviews. Id. at 37–38. The Court also held that a reference in one treatment note 2 to suspicion of poor medication compliance was not a sufficient reason to discount Dr. Liles’ 3 opinion. Id. at 38–39. 4 The Court similarly held that the ALJ failed to set forth specific and legitimate reasons for 5 giving little weight to the opinions of Drs. Lesleigh Franklin and Laura Catlin, both of whom 6 examined Haynesworth and concluded that he had marked limitations as a result of mental 7 impairments. See id. at 40–45. Contrary to the ALJ’s opinion, those doctors did not base their 8 opinions solely on Haynesworth’s own subjective statements; they in fact also administered a 9 number of clinical tests and reviewed medical records. Id. at 40–42. Nor did the fact that their services were procured by Haynesworth’s counsel constitute a sufficient reason to reject the 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 opinions under Ninth Circuit precedent. Id. at 42–43. And while the ALJ asserted that the 12 examining doctors lacked access to the full record available at the time of the ALJ’s 13 determination, both doctors in fact stated that they reviewed all medical records available at the 14 time of their opinions, which in the case of Dr. Catlin, would have included essentially all of the 15 same records available to the ALJ. Id. at 43–44. 16 Because the ALJ’s reasons for rejecting the opinions of Drs. Liles, Franklin, and Catlin 17 were insufficient, the Court held that the ALJ also erred in giving great weight to the opinions of 18 non-examining state agency doctors to the extent that they conflicted with the treating and 19 examining doctors’ opinions. Id. at 45. 20 Turning to the ALJ’s treatment of Haynesworth’s testimony, the Court held that having 21 acknowledged that Haynesworth’s impairments could reasonably be expected to cause his 22 reported symptoms, the ALJ failed to present clear and convincing reasons to discount testimony 23 as to those symptoms. Id. at 45–50. The ALJ did not identify specific testimony that she found 24 less than credible, as required by Ninth Circuit precedent, and the Court found the ALJ’s reasons 25 for generally discrediting Haynesworth to be either unsupported by the record or inadequate. Id. 26 at 47–50. 27 Finally, the Court held that the Ninth Circuit’s credit-as-true doctrine applied in this case 28 and warranted a decision awarding benefits. Id. at 50–52. The Court focused on uncontroverted 3 1 opinions of Drs. Liles and Catlin that Haynesworth’s impairments would cause him to miss more 2 than four days of work per month, and testimony from a vocational expert that even someone with 3 the comparatively mild limitations of the ALJ’s residual functional capacity assessment would not 4 be able to find work if required to miss more than two days per month. Id. at 51–52. Judgment was entered in Haynesworth’s favor on August 1, 2017. See Judgment in a Civil 5 6 Case (dkt. 28). The Commissioner filed her present motion on August 28, 2017, asking the Court 7 to alter judgment based on the Commissioner’s view that the holdings summarized above reflect a 8 flawed understanding of the record and applicable law. See generally Motion to Alter J. (dkt. 30). 9 III. ANALYSIS A. 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 Rule 59(e) provides that a party may file a ―motion to alter or amend a judgment.‖ Fed. R. Legal Standard 12 Civ. P. 59(e). The Ninth Circuit has explained the standard for a motion under Rule 59(e) as 13 follows: ―Since specific grounds for a motion to amend or alter are not listed in the rule, the district court enjoys considerable discretion in granting or denying the motion.‖ McDowell v. Calderon, 197 F.3d 1253, 1255 n.1 (9th Cir. 1999) (en banc) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). But amending a judgment after its entry remains ―an extraordinary remedy which should be used sparingly.‖ Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). In general, there are four basic grounds upon which a Rule 59(e) motion may be granted: (1) if such motion is necessary to correct manifest errors of law or fact upon which the judgment rests; (2) if such motion is necessary to present newly discovered or previously unavailable evidence; (3) if such motion is necessary to prevent manifest injustice; or (4) if the amendment is justified by an intervening change in controlling law. Id. 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 Allstate Ins. Co. v. Herron, 634 F.3d 1101, 1112 (9th Cir. 2011). This Rule ―may not be used to 22 relitigate old matters, or to raise arguments or present evidence that could have been made prior to 23 the entry of judgment.‖ Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471, 485 n.5 (2008) (citation 24 omitted). In this case, the Commissioner relies on the first avenue for relief, claiming manifest 25 error. See Mot. to Alter J. at 1. 26 B. 27 As a starting point, the Commissioner’s present motion is procedurally improper, because 28 Rule 59(e) Relief Is Not Warranted each argument raised therein either was or could have been raised in her earlier motion for 4 1 summary judgment. The motion is therefore DENIED on the basis that Rule 59(e) ―may not be 2 used to relitigate old matters, or to raise arguments or present evidence that could have been made 3 prior to the entry of judgment.‖ Exxon Shipping, 554 U.S. at 485 n.5. The Court nevertheless 4 briefly addresses some of the Commissioner’s arguments below.3 1. Deference to the First ALJ’s Assessment 5 First, the Commissioner contends that under Chavez v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 691 (9th Cir. 7 1988), and Acquiescence Ruling 97-4(9), 1997 WL 742758, the ―ALJ permissibly found that 8 [Haynesworth] had not presented new and material evidence relating to [the previous ALJ’s] 9 findings to warrant a change in his RFC.‖ Mot. to Alter J. at 1–2. Although the Commissioner’s 10 previous motion recites the standard of Acquiescence Ruling 97-4(9) in a footnote, nowhere in the 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 6 earlier motion does the Commissioner argue that there was no new material evidence before the 12 second ALJ. See Comm’r’s S.J. Mot. (dkt. 23) at 3–8 & n.2. That alone is reason to deny the 13 motion to the extent it is based on this belated argument. See Exxon Shipping, 554 U.S. at 485 n.5. 14 Moreover, the record does not support the Commissioner’s position. Regardless of what weight 15 the ALJ chose to assign them, two examining doctors’ subsequent opinions that Haynesworth had 16 marked to extreme limitations (not to mention Dr. Liles’ updated opinion) fall within any 17 reasonable interpretation of ―new and material evidence,‖ see Acquiescence Ruling 97-4(9), 1997 18 WL 742758, such that ALJ Lisewski was not bound by ALJ Flanagan’s prior assessment of 19 Haynesworth’s residual functional capacity. 20 2. Evaluation of Medical Opinion Evidence Next, the Commissioner argues that the ALJ properly evaluated the opinions of Dr. Liles 21 22 (who treated Haynesworth), Drs. Franklin and Catlin (who examined Haynesworth), and state 23 agency consultants Drs. Lee and Lucila. Mot. to Alter J. at 3–10. The Commissioner devoted a 24 substantial portion of her previous motion to those issues. Comm’r’s S.J. Mot. at 3–8. Rule 59(e) 25 ―may not be used to relitigate old matters,‖ Exxon Shipping, 554 U.S. at 485 n.5, and the present 26 27 28 3 Because the procedural posture of the case is reason enough to deny the present motion, this order does not specifically address every argument raised therein. The Court stands by its previous holdings even as to those issues not discussed again here. 5 1 motion is therefore DENIED the extent that it is based on arguments as to how the ALJ weighed 2 medical opinion evidence. Moreover, the Court stands by its analysis of the ALJ’s treatment of medical opinion 3 4 evidence for the reasons stated in the previous order. S.J. Order at 35–45. The Commissioner’s 5 present motion makes much of the deferential standard generally applied to an ALJ’s weighing of 6 evidence, but elides the deferential standards that an ALJ must apply to opinions of treating and 7 examining doctors and the burden on the ALJ to show why those opinions should be rejected. 8 See, e.g., Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830–31 (9th Cir. 1995). With respect to Dr. Liles, for 9 example, the Commissioner argues that ALJ properly resolved a conflict between Dr. Liles’ examination results and his assessment of Haynesworth’s limitations. But as the Court stated in 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 its previous order, and the ALJ failed to address, there is no conflict inherent in a patient with 12 marked limitations in social settings exhibiting normal behavior in a one-on-one setting with a 13 trusted doctor, and the Court therefore held that discrepancy did not rise to the level of a ―specific 14 and legitimate reason‖ to set aside Dr. Liles’ opinions. See S.J. Order at 36–38. With respect to 15 Dr. Catlin, for example, the facts that ―some of Dr. Caitlin’s [sic4] tests indicated normal results,‖ 16 and that Haynesworth was at one point dating someone, see Mot. to Alter J. at 7–8 (emphasis 17 added), are not specific and legitimate reasons to discount the opinion of a psychologist who 18 examined Haynesworth, reviewed his medical records, and conducted numerous clinical tests— 19 several of which placed him in the ―extremely low range,‖ ―indicat[ed] symptoms of severe 20 depression,‖ or otherwise suggested serious impairment. See AR at 437–48. The Commissioner also emphasizes that ―the State agency doctors are disability experts,‖ 21 22 and contends that the ALJ was therefore right to credit their opinions over those of Haynesworth’s 23 treating and examining doctors. Mot. to Alter J. at 9; see also id. at 5, 9–10. Starting from a blank 24 slate, a decision to afford deference to such experts over doctors who have personally interacted 25 with a claimant might be reasonable, but such an approach conflicts with controlling Ninth Circuit 26 precedent. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 831 (―The opinion of a nonexamining physician cannot by itself 27 4 28 The Commissioner refers to ―Dr. Caitlin‖ throughout both of her motions. The spelling that appears in the record is ―Catlin.‖ See AR at, e.g., 27, 437. 6 1 constitute substantial evidence that justifies the rejection of the opinion of either an examining 2 physician or a treating physician.‖).5 Although the Court’s previous order should not be read as 3 suggesting that an ALJ can never properly credit a state agency consultant’s opinion over that of a 4 treating or examining physician, cf. Mot. to Alter J. at 9, the Court’s holding stands that the ALJ’s 5 analysis in this case did not meet the standards to do so. 3. Evaluation of Haynesworth’s Symptom Testimony 6 As for the ALJ’s treatment of Haynesworth’s own testimony, the Commissioner’s present 7 8 arguments again overlap significantly with her arguments at summary judgment, see Comm’r’s 9 S.J. Mot. at 8–11, and thus constitute an improper attempt ―to relitigate old matters.‖ See Exxon Shipping, 554 U.S. at 485 n.5. The motion is DENIED on that basis. The Commissioner also fails 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 to address the standard stated in Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1036 (9th Cir. 2007), 12 which requires a heightened showing of ―specific, clear and convincing reasons‖ for an ALJ to 13 reject a claimant’s symptom testimony so long as there is objective medical evidence of an 14 impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the type of symptoms at issue. Nor does 15 the Commissioner’s present motion acknowledge the Court’s holding that the ALJ failed to 16 identify specific testimony that was not credible, as required by controlling Ninth Circuit 17 precedent. See S.J. Order at 47 (citing Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1234 (9th Cir. 2010)); 18 Lester, 81 F.3d at 834 (―General findings are insufficient; rather, the ALJ must identify what 19 testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant’s complaints.‖). As for the 20 Commissioner’s remaining arguments regarding Haynesworth’s testimony, the Court stands by its 21 holding for the reasons stated in the previous order. 22 4. Remand for Benefits Under the Credit-as-True Rule Finally, the Commissioner contends that the Court erred in remanding the case for an 23 24 award of benefits rather than for further administrative proceedings. Mot. to Alter J. at 12–16. As 25 stated in the Court’s previous order, the Ninth Circuit’s credit-as-true rule applies where: 26 27 28 5 The fact that the Commissioner relies on opinions of consulting doctors to grant approximately one-third of disability applications at the initial screening stage, see Mot. to Alter J. at 9–10 & Ex. 1, is not in any way relevant to the present motion. 7 3 (1) the record has been fully developed and further administrative proceedings would serve no useful purpose; (2) the ALJ has failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting evidence, whether claimant testimony or medical opinion; and (3) if the improperly discredited evidence were credited as true, the ALJ would be required to find the claimant disabled on remand. 4 S.J. Order at 50 (quoting Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1020 (9th Cir. 2014)). If those criteria 5 are satisfied, a court should remand for benefits unless ―the record as a whole creates serious 6 doubt as to whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled‖; failure to do so is an abuse of discretion. 7 See Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1020–21. In applying the credit-as-true rule to this case, Court focused 8 on: (1) the uncontroverted opinions of Drs. Liles and Catlin that Haynesworth’s impairments 9 would cause him to miss more than four days of work per month; and (2) the vocational expert’s 1 2 testimony that even someone otherwise meeting the ALJ’s assessement of Haynesworth’s residual 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 functional capacity could not find employment if required to miss more than two days per month. 12 Id. at 51–52. 13 The Commissioner does not identify any gaps in the record or necessary further 14 proceedings, other than allowing the ALJ a second chance to evaluate the same record. As stated 15 in the previous order, the ALJ did not provide a legally sufficient basis for disregarding the 16 opinions at issue. And in light of the vocational expert’s testimony, the ALJ would have been 17 required to find Haynesworth disabled if those opinions of Dr. Liles and Catlin regarding his 18 absence from work were taken as true—not to mention the remaining opinions of Drs. Liles, 19 Catlin, and Franklin, as well as Haynesworth’s symptom testimony. The Commissioner’s present 20 argument focuses instead on whether the record as a whole creates serious doubt as to whether 21 Haynesworth is disabled. 22 Assuming for the sake of argument that the Commissioner is correct that the record is 23 ambiguous as to Haynesworth’s capabilities and limitations while in a work environment, the 24 Commissioner still fails to identify any evidence actually contradicting the medical opinions 25 regarding the number of days that Haynesworth would be required to miss. Instead, the 26 Commissioner points to the state agency consulting doctors’ opinions that Haynesworth was not 27 disabled. Both of those doctors agreed, however, that Haynesworth has mental impairments 28 causing meaningful limitations, and the Commissioner does not identify any point in the record at 8 1 which either consulting doctor addressed the question of if or how often Haynesworth would be 2 required to miss work. The circumstances here therefore differ from Treichler v. Commissioner of Social Security 3 4 Administration, 775 F.3d 1090 (9th Cir. 2014), a case on which the Commissioner relies for her 5 argument that remand for benefits is inappropriate. The majority opinion in Triechler identified 6 medical evidence specifically contradicting the testimony that the claimant sought to credit as true, 7 and held on that basis that ―the district court would not abuse its discretion in concluding that not 8 all essential factual issues have been resolved.‖ Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1104–05. Lacking such 9 evidence in this case, the Commissioner’s position amounts to a view that the credit-as-true doctrine cannot apply in virtually any case where a consulting doctor has determined the claimant 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 is not disabled—a proposition unsupported by Ninth Circuit authority. In this case, further 12 proceedings on remand would constitute the sort of duplicative reassessments of credibility that 13 the doctrine is intended to avoid. See Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1019–20 (quoting Varney v. Sec’y of 14 Health & Human Servs., 859 F.2d 1396, 1398–99 (9th Cir. 1988)). The Court therefore declines to 15 revisit its holding as to this issue. 16 IV. CONCLUSION 17 It is clear from the Commissioner’s present motion that she strongly disagrees with this 18 Court’s reasoning and interpretation of the record and relevant authority. The Commissioner is 19 entitled to that opinion, and is entitled to an appeal to the Ninth Circuit, should she so choose. For 20 the reasons discussed above, however, the Commissioner is not entitled to the ―extraordinary 21 remedy‖ of relief under Rule 59(e). See Allstate, 634 F.3d at 1112. The motion is DENIED. 22 23 24 25 IT IS SO ORDERED. Dated: September 7, 2017 ______________________________________ JOSEPH C. SPERO Chief Magistrate Judge 26 27 28 9

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