Sutherland v. Commissioner Social Security Administration
Opinion. The Commissioner's final decision denying benefits to Plaintiff on her DIB application is REVERSED and this proceeding is REMANDED for an immediate calculation and payment of benefits. Signed on 2/10/2017 by Judge Malcolm F. Marsh. (ps1)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF OREGON
SUZANNE E. SUTHERLAND,
COMMISSIONER SOCIAL SECURITY
11830 SW Kerr Parkway, #315
Lake Oswego, OR 97035
Attorney for Plaintiff
BILLY J. WILLIAMS
United States Attorney
District of Oregon
JANICE E. HEBERT
Assistant United States Attorney
1000 S.W. Third Ave., Suite 600
Portland, OR 97204-2902
FRANCO L. BECIA
Special Assistant United States Attorney
Office of the General Counsel
Social Security Administration
701 Fifth Ave., Suite 2900, MIS 221A
Seattle, WA 98104-7075
Attorneys for Defendant
1 - OPINION AND ORDER
Case No. 3:16-cv-00321-MA
OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Suzanne E. Sutherland seeks judicial review of the pmiially favorable decision of
the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits
("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403. This Comihasjurisdiction
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons that follow, I reverse the
Commissioner's decision concerning Plaintiffs DIB application and remand for an immediate
calculation and award of benefits.
PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
On December 19, 2011, Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for a period of
disability and disability insurance ("DIB") benefits. On February 17, 2012, Plaintiff protectively
filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. In those
applications, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning December 31, 2003. On April 16, 2013, Plaintiff
protectively filed a Title II application for disabled widow's benefits, alleging disability beginning
Februaty 28, 2008. All of Plaintiffs claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff
filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). The ALJ held a hearing on
July 2, 2014, at which Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified. A vocational expe1i, Paul
K. Morrison, also appeared at the hearing and testified. At the hearing, Plaintiff amended the alleged
onset of disability date to Januaty 1, 2010.
On July 31, 2014, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, finding that Plaintiff became
disabled on Februaty 17, 2012 at step three (meeting Listing 12.06 for Anxiety Related Disorders),
and therefore was entitled to SSI and disabled widow's benefits. However, the ALJ detennined
Plaintiff was not entitled to DIB benefits because she did not have any severe impairments at step
2 - OPINION AND ORDER
two prior to her date last insured. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, and
therefore, the ALJ' s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of review.
Plaintiff appeals the unfavorable DIB po11ion of the ALJ's decision in this action.
Plaintiff has a long histmy of domestic violence abuse. Plaintiff described long-term
exposure to abuse from her ex-husband, to whom she was married for 17 years. Plaintiff was
severely abused in her next relationship by her then boyfriend, who she alleges continued to stalk,
rape and attempted to murder her after she ended that relationship in 2006. Social Security
Administrative Record ("Tr.") at 59-60, ECFNo. 12. Plaintiffhas not been employed full-time since
2002, and last attempted working in 2008. Tr. 258. In 2011, Plaintiff began seeking counseling and
treatment to deal with the consequences of her abuse from the Domestic Violence Resource Center
and the Sexual Assault Resource Center. Tr. 51-52, 68-69.
In June 2013, Plaintiff was hospitalized for a suicide attempt by overdose, then emolled in
an Intensive Outpatient Behavioral Health treatment program. Tr. 1080, 1085-92. Plaintiff continues
to experience PTSD, and has severe depression and anxiety with suicidal ideation. Tr. 1080; 1150.
Plaintiff was 47 years old on her amended alleged onset of disability date, and 51 years old
at the July 2014 hearing. Plaintiff has completed high school. Plaintiff has past relevant work as
a travel agent, a customer service representative at call centers, and a collections agent.
THE ALJ'S DISABILITY ANALYSIS
The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for dete1mining whether
a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
Each step is potentially dispositive. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through
four. Jvfolina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012); Valentine v. Commissioner Soc. Sec.
3 - OPINION AND ORDER
Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to
show that the claimant can do other work that exists in the national economy. Hill v. Astrue, 698
F.3d 1153, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012).
that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements for a DIB application
through September 30, 2010. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiffhas not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since her amended alleged onset date, January 1, 2010. At step two, the ALJ found
that prior to Februmy 17, 2012, Plaintiff had the following medically dete1minable impairments:
anxiety disorder, diabetes mellitus, and basal cell carcinoma. However, the ALJ concluded that these
impairments or combination of impairments did not significantly limit Plaintiffs ability to perfo1m
basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months. Consequently, the ALJ dete1mined that
Plaintiff did not have a severe impai1ment or combination of impairments prior to February 17, 2012.
However, the ALJ found that beginning Februmy 17, 2012, Plaintiffs PTSD and depression m·e
severe impairments at step two.
At step tlu·ee, the ALJ found that since February 17, 2012, Plaintiffs PTSD and depression
meet Listing 12.06. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to February 17,
2012, but became disabled on that date and continued to be disabled through the date of the decision.
ISSUES ON REVIEW
Plaintiff contends that the following errors were committed: (1) the ALJ erred in failing to
find Plaintiffs anxiety and depression severe prior to Februmy 17, 2012; (2) the ALJ erred in failing
to call a medical expert under SSR 83-20 to assess an onset date prior to Februaty 17, 2012; (3) the
ALJ erred in assessing the medical opinion evidence; (4) the ALJ erred in evaluating Plaintiffs
credibility; and (5) the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence in light of the opinion
4 - OPINION AND ORDER
of Scott T. Alvord, Psy.D., rendered on December 13, 2014, after the ALJ's decision. The
Commissioner responds that the ALJ did not etT, or altematively, that Plaintiffhas not demonstrated
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision ifthe Commissioner applied the
proper legal standards and the findings are suppo1ted by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g); Beny v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010). "Substantial evidence is more than
a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to suppmt a conclusion." Hill, 698 F.3d at 1159 (intemal quotations
omitted); Valentine, 574 F.3d at 690. The comt must weigh all the evidence, whether it supports or
detracts from the Commissioner's decision. kfartinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986).
The Commissioner's decision must be upheld, even if the evidence is susceptible to more than one
rational interpretation. Batson v. Commissioner Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir.
2004). If the evidence supports the Commissioner's conclusion, the Commissioner must be
affirmed; "the comt may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner." Edlund v.
ivfassanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001); Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1010 (9th Cir.
The ALJ Erred at Step Two and Failed to Comply with SSR 83-20
At step two, a claimant must establish that he or she suffers from a medically dete1minable
impahment. See Ukolov v. Barnhart, 420 F.3d 1002, 1004-1005 (9th Cir. 2005). The claimant has
the burden of proving that "these impairments or their symptoms affect [her] ability to perform basic
5 - OPINION AND ORDER
work activities." Edlund, 253 F.3d at 1159-1160. Step two findings must be based on medical
evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(ii). Denial of a claim at step two is appropriate only if the
medical signs, symptoms and laboratoty findings establish only a slight abnormality that has "no
more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work." Smolen v. Chafer, 80 F.3d 1273,
1290 (9th Cir. 1996) (internal quotation omitted); Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir.
2005). This has been described as a "de minimus" screening device designed to dispose of
groundless or frivolous claims. Webb, 433 F.3d at 686; Smolen, 80 F.3d at 686.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ ened at step two in finding her mental impairments of depression
and anxiety nonsevere. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ ened in failing to comply with SSR 83-20
by calling a medical expett to testify at the hearing to properly determine an onset date. Plaintiff is
The Ninth Circuit has detetmined that if the ALJ makes a disability determination "where
a record is ambiguous as to the onset date of disability, the ALJ must call a medical expett to assist
in determining the onset date." Armstrongv. Comm 'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 160 F.3d 587, 590 (9th Cir.
1998). "In many claims, the onset date is critical[.]" SSR 83-20 at 1, available at 1983 WL 31249
SSR 83-20 provides in relevant part:
In some cases, it may be possible, based on the medical evidence to reasonably infer
that the onset of a disabling impairment(s) occmTed some time prior to the date of the
first recorded medical examination, e.g., the date the claimant stopped working. How
long the disease may be determined to have existed at a disabling level of severity
depends on an infotmed judgment of the facts in the patticular case. This judgment,
however, must have a legitimate medical basis. At the hearing, the administrative law
judge (ALJ) should call on the services of a medical advisor when onset must be
infened. Ifthere is information in the file indicating that additional medical evidence
6 - OPINION AND ORDER
concerning onset is available, such evidence should be secured before inferences are
SSR 83-20 at 1. The Ninth Circuit has interpreted the directive that a medial advisor "should" be
called to mean that an expert "must" be called. Armstrong, 160 F.3d at 590 (citing Delorme v.
Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 848 (9th Cir. 1991)).
Moreover, as the Ninth Circuit has recognized, when a claimant's limitations arise out of
mental illness, establishing an exact onset of disability can be exceptionally difficult. "Mental
disorders may manifest themselves over a period of time. Consequently, the precise date of onset
of a disabling psychological impainnentmay be difficult, or impossible, to ascertain, and the services
of a specialist may be necessaiy to infer the onset date." ,\;Jorgan v. Sullivan, 945 F.2d 1079, 1081
(9th Cir. 1991) (per curiam). Thus, as SSR 83-20 requires, when the onset date is ambiguous, the
ALJ has the duty to develop the record and must call a medical advisor to testify concerning an onset
date. Armstrong, 160 F.3d at 590; Graves v. Colvin, Case No. 2: 15-cv-OO 106-RFB-NJK, 2016 WL
3360669, *5 (D. Nev. Mar. 29, 2016). Likewise, SSR 83-20 provides that other sources of
infonnation concerning the onset date must be explored, such as "family members, friends, and
former employers." SSR 83-20 at 3; Armstrong, 160 F.3d at 590.
In the decision, the ALJ dete1mined at step two that Plaintiffs depression and anxiety were
not severe as of September 30, 2010. Tr. 28. In so doing, the ALJ cited the lack of objective
medical evidence prior to 2012 as fatal to Plaintiffs DIB claim, finding specifically that she had not
received treatment for her mental impairments prior to that date. Tr. 28. Yet, the ALJ found that
Plaintiffs depression, anxiety and PTSD were disabling- at the Listing level- as ofFebruaiy 17,
7 - OPINION AND ORDER
2012. Tr. 29-30. Consequently, the ALJ found Plaintiff disabled and the only critical inquiry is
Plaintiffs onset date.
Contrary to the ALJ' s findings, I conclude there is some, limited medical evidence that
Plaintiffs depression and anxiety caused more than a minimal impact on her functioning prior to her
date last insured that is sufficiently ambiguous to trigger the ALJ' s duty to develop the record under
SSR 83-20. There is evidence in the record that Plaintiff was prescribed Cymbalta and Buspar for
her depression, anxiety and PTSD as early as June 2009. Tr. 594. And, Plaintiffs treating providers
continued to prescribe Cymbalta, Buspar, as well as adding Clonidine, Lorazepam, and Trazodone
to treat her symptoms. Tr. 405, 526, 582-83, 1002. Additionally, a July 27, 2011 treatment note
shows that Plaintiff reported that she was regularly seeing a counselor for her anxiety. Tr. 560; see
also Tr. 569, 512. Plaintiff alleges that she has been suffering from depression, anxiety, and PTSD
for years. Tr. 329. Plaintiff testified that she was unable to work in 2008 due to her anxiety and
depression. Tr. 50. Likewise, Plaintiffs boyfriend of ten years described that Plaintiffhas been able
to work only briefly in 2008, and that beginning in 2008, Plaintiff did not want to leave the house.
Tr. 309, 404.
Plaintiffs long-standing self-repmied depression, anxiety and mental health problems are
echoed elsewhere in the record. For example, in May 2012, Plaintiff underwent a consultative
examination with Marc Stuckey, Psy, D. Tr. 484. At that time, Plaintiff repmied depression,
anxiety, and symptoms related to past traumatic events, such as flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive
thoughts, and hypervigilence. Tr. 30. Dr. Stuckey diagnosed Plaintiff with PTSD, and Major
Depressive Disorder, Recurrent, Mild. Tr. 486. While the ALJ credited Dr. Stuckey's opinion at
step three as an accurate reflection of Plaintiffs then-current functioning, the ALJ gave no
8 - OPINION AND ORDER
consideration to Dr. Stuckey' s evaluation of Plaintiffs past psychiatric histmy, in which she revealed
a prior suicide attempt and psychiatric hospitalization at age 17, and a histo1y of depression, feelings
of isolation, past hopelessness, sadness, and low self-esteem. Tr. 485.
Similarly, in October 2012, Plaintiff reported to Michelle Hayes, a counselor at NARA, that
she attempted suicide at age 17 and engaged in other self-harming behaviors until six years ago, and
has experienced depression since childhood. Tr. 852, 854. In a September 2012 Mental Health
Assessment, Plaintiff reported that she was forced to stop working by her ex-boyfriend years earlier,
and since has been unable to work due to extreme anxiety, fear, and other trauma affecting her ability
to concentrate. Tr. 986. In a November 2012 psychiatric evaluation, Nick Drakos, Ph.D., indicated
that Plaintiff repo1ied long-standing depression, anxiety, and low-self esteem resulting in vegetative
symptoms of low energy and difficulty concentrating. Tr. l 002. Dr. Drakos also indicated that
Plaintiff repmied her primmy care providet at NARA prescribed Cymbalta, Buspar, Clonidine,
Trazadone, and Benadryl in 2009 for her symptoms. Tr. 1002. Plaintiff repo1ied to Dr. Drakos that
she experienced pmiial improvement in her symptoms since sta1iing medication, but frequently
remained overwhelmed and has considerable difficulty functioning. Tr. 1003. Additionally, in a
July 2, 2014 letter, Plaintiffs counselor Tara Vandehey opined that Plaintiffs mental impainnents
were likely disabling prior to 2010. Tr. 1151.
Based on Plaintiffs established disability in Februmy 2012, the limited available medical
evidence, and Plaintiffs self-reported histmy ofdepression and anxiety, I conclude the record is
sufficiently ambiguous to trigger the ALJ's duty to develop the record and call a medical expe1i to
assist in asce1iaining Plaintiffs onset date. Armstrong, 160 F.3d 590; Quarles v. Barnhart, 178 F.
Supp.2d 1089, 1097 (N.D. Cal. 2001) (holding ALJ failed to comply with SSR 83-20 by calling
9 - OPINION AND ORDER
medical expert to testify regarding onset of mental impairments); Speight v. Apfel, 108 F.Supp.2d
1087, 1092 (C.D. Cal. 2000) (holding ALJ erred in failing to call medical advisor to testify regarding
onset of claimant's depression).
The Commissioner responds that Plaintiff simply failed to meet her burden of establishing
disability prior to her date last insured and the ALJ' s decision is a reasonable interpretation of sparse
medical record. I disagree.
Although Plaintiff bears the ultimate burden of proof, this does not relieve the ALJ of his
duty to develop the record. "In Social Security cases the ALJ has a special duty to fully and fairly
develop the record and to assure that the claimant's interests are considered. This duty exists even
when the claimant is represented by counsel." Brown v. Heckler, 713 F.2d 441, 443 (9th Cir. 1983)
(per curiam) (citation omitted). The fact that there may be limited medical records prior to a
claimant's date last insured does not relieve an ALJ of his duty to develop the record when an
ambiguity exists. Armstrong, 160 F.3d at 589-90; Graves, 2016 WL 3360669 at *6; Quarles, 178
F.Supp.2d at 1097. Additionally, Plaintiff may be one of the millions of individuals with a mental
impahment who did not seek professional assistance until late in the day. Nguyen v. Chater, 100
F.3d 1462, 1465 (9th Cir. 1996) (observing "it is common knowledge that depression is one of the
most underreported illnesses in the count1y because those afflicted often do not recognize that their
condition reflects a potentially serious mental illness.").
For all these reasons, I conclude the ALJ erred by failing to obtain testimony from a medical
advisor to determine the onset date as required by SSR 83-20. The ALJ erred at step two in
concluding that Plaintiffs depression and anxiety did not meet the threshold de minimus level of
10- OPINION AND ORDER
severity as of September 30, 2010 without having developed the record. Accordingly, the ALJ' s step
two determination is not supported by substantial evidence.
Credibility and Opinion Evidence
The ALJ Failed to Cite Clear and Convincing Evidence to Discredit Plaintiff
In making step two findings, the ALJ found Plaintiffs statements concerning the intensity
and limiting effects of her alleged impairments prior to February 17, 2012 were not credible because
there is "minimal objective support prior to her date last insured." Tr. 27. Conversely, the ALJ
found Plaintiffs allegations after Februaiy 17, 2012 generally credible because ihey were supported
by objective medical evidence and corroborated by the testimony of friends and family.
Here, the ALJ erred in failing to identify specific, clear and convincing support for the
adverse credibility determination. E.g., Ghanim v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, 1163 (9th Cir. 2014) (a
claimant's testimony may be rejected only for specific, clear and convincing reasons); Brown-Hunter
v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 489 (9th Cir. 2015) (same). The only reason offered by the ALJ for
discounting Plaintiffs subjective allegations is the lack of medical evidence. It is well-established
that an ALJ may discount a claimant's testimony based on a lack of objective medical evidence,
however, it may not be the sole basis for finding a claimant not credible. Bray v. Comm 'r Soc. Sec.
Adm in., 554 F.3d 1219, 1227 (9th Cir. 2009); Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 681 (9th Cir. 2005).
Further, a claimant is not required to produce objective evidence of the symptom or its severity.
Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1014.
Moreover, the ALJ's rationale is not a reasonable interpretation of the record. The ALJ
found Plaintiffs allegations of her limitations credible after she began mental health treatment,
despite that Plaintiffs allegations concerning her mental health history have largely been consistent
11 - OPINION AND ORDER
across multiple treatment providers. See Tr. 484, 850, 1002, 1150. The ALJ appears to have
confused the concepts of diagnosis and treatment with onset, and simply discounted Plaintiffs
testimony based on her lack of treatment, a questionable practice where mental health limitations are
concern. Quarles, 178 F.Supp.2d at 1098; see also Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1017 (cautioning against
discrediting claimants whose mental health issues may have improved, but may not be abfo to work);
Nguyen, 100 F.3d at 1465 (noting it is "a questionable practice to chastise one with a mental
impairment for the exercise of poor judgment in seeking rehabilitation") (quotation and citation
omitted). Accordingly, the ALJ's adverse credibility determination is not supported by substantial
evidence; the ALJ has ened.
The ALJ's Evaluation of the }vfedical Evidence Is Not Supported by Substantial
The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in the medical record, including conflicts
among physician's opinions. Carmickle v. Comm 'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 533 F.3d 1155, 1164 (9th Cir.
2008). The opinion of a treating or examining physician generally is accorded more weight than the
opinion of anonexamining physician. Id. Opinions from "other sources" such as physician assistants
and counselors are not accorded the same weight as physicians, but may provide evidence about the
severity of a claimant's impairments and how it affects a claimant's ability to work. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1513(d). Thus, the ALJ may discount testimony from other sources by providing germane
reasons for doing so. Dale v. Colvin, 823 F.3d 941, 943 (9th Cir. 2016); }vfolina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d
1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012).
At step two, the ALJ credited the opinions of the agency nonexamining physicians, Arthur
Lewy, Ph.D. and Megan D. Nicoloff, who opined in 2012 and 2013 respectively, that there was
12 - OPINION AND ORDER
insufficient evidence to establish functional limitations prior to Plaintiffs date last insured. Tr. 28,
83-85, 110. The ALJ adopted the opinions ofDrs. Lewy and Nicoloffbecause the record contained
scant objective medical evidence to support mental health limitations prior to Februaiy 17, 2012.
At step two, the ALJ rejected the July2, 2014 opinion of Plaintiffs mental health counselor
Tara Vandehey. In Ms. Vandehey's 2014 letter, Ms. Vandehey indicated that she began treating
Plaintiff in 2013, and that Plaintiff is a victim of severe domestic abuse for many years. Tr. 1150.
Ms. Vandehey noted that Plaintiff suffers from severe PTSD, which can be triggered by nightmares,
flashbacks, and memories of abuse that can take a week or longer to stabilize. Tr. 1150. Ms.
Vandehey also indicated that Plaintiffs PTSD magnifies her depression and anxiety, leading to an
inability to concentrate, and generating feelings ofextreme self-doubt, isolation, and guilt. Tr. 1150.
Ms. Vandehey opined that Plaintiff cannot cm1'ently, or in the foreseeable future, handle work. Tr.
1151. Additionally, Ms. Vandehey opined that it is "psychiatrically probable that she has been
disabled prior to 2010." Tr. 1151.
At step two, the ALJ gave no weight to Ms. Vandehey' s opinion concerning Plaintiffs onset
of disability for two reasons: ( 1) she did not begin treating Plaintiff until 2013, making her opinion
about Plaintiffs past symptoms less persuasive, and (2) it is not supported by objective medical
evidence. Tr. 28. Conversely, the ALJ gave Ms. Vandehey's opinion weight concerning Plaintiffs
cmTent functioning at step three, finding it consistent with other medical evidence and opinions and
supporting the determination that Plaintiff has marked limitations in social functioning and
concentration, persistence, and pace. Tr. 29, 32. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ ened in evaluating
Ms. Vandehey' s opinion. Plaintiff is correct.
13 - OPINION AND ORDER
As discussed above, a lack of contemporaneous objective evidence of treatment does not
equate to onset of disability when considering mental health limitations. Quarles, 178 F.Supp.2d at
1098 ("The fact that pre-DLI medical reports or clinical tests may not exist does not diminish the
ambiguity regarding onset date."). Additionally, the ALJ's rationale in crediting Ms. Vandehey's
opinion after 2012, but rejecting her opinion as to onset is not supported substantial evidence. As
the ALJ conectly found, Ms. Vandehey' s opinion is consistent with the other medical evidence in
the record after 2013. The ALJ failed to provide any specific rationale besides the lack of objective
support for discounting Ms. Vandehey' s opinion concerning Plaintiffs potential onset date.
Therefore, I conclude the ALJ failed to provide reasons germane to Ms. Vandehey for rejecting her
Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ' s step two analysis is not supported by substantial evidence
in light ofthe opinion of Dr. Alvord, an examining physician. Dr. Alvord conducted a psychological
evaluation of Plaintiff on December 12, 2014, and specifically was asked to address Plaintiffs
potential onset of symptoms that interfered with her ability to work full-time. Tr. 1152. Dr. Alvord
reviewed numerous records, conducted a mental status examination, discussed Plaintiffs psychiatric
history, and diagnosed Plaintiff with chronic PTSD (severe), Major Depressive Disorder (severe) and
Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia. Tr. 1157. Dr. Alvord opined that Plaintiff currently is paralyzed
by anxiety and depression, and that her "cunent symptoms have been present since well before her
date last insured." Tr. 1157.
Dr. Alvord' s opinion was submitted to the Appeals Council after the ALJ issued its decision.
The Appeals Council reviewed Dr. Alvord's opinion, but concluded that Dr. Alvord's opinion did
not provide a basis for altering the ALJ' s decision. Tr. 2. "[W]hen a claimant submits evidence for
14- OPINION AND ORDER
the first time to the Appeals Council, which considers that evidence in denying review of the ALJ' s
decision, the new evidence is part of the administrative record, which the district comtmust consider
in determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence." Brewes
v. Comm 'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 682 F.3d 1157, 1159-60 (9th Cir. 2012).
In light of the additional evidence from Dr. Alvord, I conclude that the ALJ's step two
detetmination is not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Here, the ALJ did
not have the opportunity to review Dr. Alvord's opinion and instead credited the opinions of Drs.
Lewy and Nicoloff, and rejected Ms. Vandehey's opinion. Dr. Alvord's opinion has provided
critical, probative evidence concerning Plaintiffs onset date of her anxiety and depression. Dr.
Alvord's opinion is consistent with the opinions of Dr. Drakos, Dr. Stuckey, Ms. Vandehey, as well
as Plaintiffs other mental health providers. Therefore, considering Dr. Alvorod' s opinion, the ALJ' s
denial of DIB benefits at step two is not suppotted by substantial evidence in light of the record as
After finding the ALJ ened, this court has the discretion to remand for further proceedings
or for immediate payment of benefits. Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1021. The issue turns on the utility of
further proceedings. Harman v. Apfel, 211F.3d1172, 1179 (9th Cir. 2000). Generally, the proper
course is to remand for further proceedings. Beneke v. Barnhart, 359 F.3d 587, 595 (9th Cir. 2004).
A remand for an award of benefits is appropriate when no useful purpose would be served by further
administrative proceedings or when the record has been fully developed. Garrison, 759 F.3d at
1021; Brewes, 682 F.3d at 1164. The Ninth Circuit has established a three part test to detetmine
whether to credit evidence and remand for payment of benefits:
15 - OPINION AND ORDER
(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) ifthe
improperly discredited evidence were credited as true, the ALJ would be required to
find the claimant disabled on remand.
Id. at 1020. It is an abuse of discretion to "remand[ ] for an award of benefits when not all factual
issues have been resolved." Treichler v. Comm 'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1101 n. 5 (9th
Cir.2014). Even if the "credit-as-tiue" criteria are met, the court retains the "flexibility" to remand
for further proceedings where "an evaluation of the record as a whole creates serious doubt that a
claimant is, in fact, disabled." Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1021.
Further proceedings are not necessary here; there are no outstanding issues to resolve. As
discussed above, the ALJ ened in failing to obtain the testimony of a medical advisor concerning
Plaintiffs onset date as required by SSR 83-20. Likewise, the ALJ erred in discrediting Plaintiffs
testimony and ened in evaluating the medical evidence of Ms. Vandehey and Dr. Alvord. Plaintiff
. has been found disabled at step three and the only pertinent issue is whether Plaintiffhas established
disability prior to her date last insured, September 30, 2010. Plaintiff testified that she has been
unable to work since 2008 due to her anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Ms. Vandehey opined that
Plaintiff has been unable to work since prior to 2010. And, Dr. Alvord opined that Plaintiff is
currently "paralyzed by anxiety and plagued by chronic depression" and that her cmTent symptoms
have been present since well before her date last insured. Tr. 1157. Dr. Alvord's opinions are not
inconsistent with any medical opinion. Indeed, Drs. Lewy and Nicoloff concluded that the record
lacked objective medical evidence about Plaintiffs functional limitations, yet they did not have the
benefit ofreviewing Dr. Alvord and Ms. Vandehey's opinions that became part of the record after
their review. When Plaintiffs testimony and Dr. Alvord and Ms. Vandehey's opinions are credited
16- OPINION AND ORDER
as hue, it is clear from the record that the Commissioner would be required to find Plaintiff disabled.
Brewes, 682 F.3d at 1164-65. Finally, having carefully reviewed the entire record, I have no serious
doubt that Plaintiff has been disabled since well before her date last insured.
Accordingly, I reverse the Commissioner's decision, and remand this matter for an immediate
calculation and award ofDIB benefits to Plaintiff.
For the reasons stated above, the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits to Plaintiff
on her DIB application is REVERSED and this proceeding is REMANDED for an immediate
calculation and payment of benefits.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
I Cl day of FEBRUARY, 2017.
Malcolm F. Marsh
United States District Judge
17 - OPINION AND ORDER
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