Dowell v. Commissioner Social Security Administration
Opinion and Order - For the reasons articulated in this Opinion and Order, the ALJ's decision is reversed and remanded for the immediate payment of benefits. Signed on 4/3/2017 by Judge Michael H. Simon. (mja)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF OREGON
SAMUEL IRA DOWELL,
Case No. 3:16-cv-614-SI
OPINION AND ORDER
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Commissioner of Social Security,1
George J. Wall, LAW OFFICES OF GEORGE J. WALL, 1336 E. Burnside Street, Suite 130, Portland,
OR 97214. Of Attorneys for Plaintiff.
Billy J. Williams, United States Attorney, and Janice E. Hebert, Assistant United States
Attorney, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY’S OFFICE, District of Oregon, 1000 S.W. Third Avenue,
Suite 600, Portland, OR 97201; Ryan Lu, Special Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF
THE GENERAL COUNSEL, Social Security Administration, 701 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2900 M/S
221A, Seattle, WA 98104. Of Attorneys for Defendant.
Michael H. Simon, District Judge.
Samuel Dowell (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the final decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his applications
Nancy A. Berryhill is now the Acting Commissioner of Social Security. Pursuant to
Rule 25(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Nancy A. Berryhill is substituted for
Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin as the defendant in this suit.
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for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Titles
II and XVI of the Social Security Act. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner’s
decision is reversed and remanded for the immediate calculation of an award of benefits.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The district court must affirm the Commissioner’s decision if it is based on the proper
legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see
also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). “Substantial evidence” means
“more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Bray v. Comm’r Soc. Sec.
Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039
(9th Cir. 1995)). It means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate
to support a conclusion.” Id. (quoting Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039).
Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the
Commissioner’s conclusion must be upheld. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679
(9th Cir. 2005). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner’s
interpretation is a rational reading of the record, and this Court may not substitute its judgment
for that of the Commissioner. See Batson v. Comm’r Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th
Cir. 2004). “[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm
simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625,
630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)
(quotation marks omitted)). A reviewing court, however, may not affirm the Commissioner on a
ground upon which the Commissioner did not rely. Id.; see also Bray, 554 F.3d at 1226.
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A. Plaintiff’s Application
Plaintiff was born in March, 1985. AR 380. He speaks English and earned his GED after
completing the 11th grade. AR 244, 383. He has past work experience as a gas station attendant,
a store stocker, and as a roofer. Id.
Plaintiff filed for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on August 14,
2012, alleging disability as of June 26, 2009, due to mental impairments. AR 243. Plaintiff’s
applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a hearing before an
ALJ. AR 235-38. An administrative hearing was held before ALJ Rudolph Murgo on
October 24, 2014. AR 36. On November 7, 2014, ALJ Murgo issued a written decision denying
Plaintiff’s applications. AR 14-30. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s subsequent request for
review on February 17, 2016, making the ALJ’s decision final. AR 1-4. This appeal followed.
B. The Sequential Analysis
A claimant is disabled if he or she is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity
by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or
can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months[.]” 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(d)(1)(A). “Social Security Regulations set out a five-step sequential process for
determining whether an applicant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.”
Keyser v. Comm’r Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011); see also 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520 (DIB); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (SSI); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). Each
step is potentially dispositive. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4). The five-step
sequential process asks the following series of questions:
Is the claimant performing “substantial gainful activity?” 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i); 416.920(a)(4)(i). This activity is work involving
significant mental or physical duties done or intended to be done for pay
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or profit. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1510; 416.910. If the claimant is performing
such work, she is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i); 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not performing
substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two.
Is the claimant’s impairment “severe” under the Commissioner’s
regulations? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Unless
expected to result in death, an impairment is “severe” if it significantly
limits the claimant’s physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a); 416.921(a). This impairment must have lasted
or must be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509; 416.909. If the claimant does not have a severe
impairment, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii);
416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a severe impairment, the analysis
proceeds to step three.
Does the claimant’s severe impairment “meet or equal” one or more of the
impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so,
then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii);
416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment does not meet or equal one or more of
the listed impairments, the analysis proceeds beyond step three. At that
point, the ALJ must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to assess
and determine the claimant’s “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”). This
is an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still
perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations imposed
by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e); 404.1545(b)-(c);
416.920(e); 416.945(b)-(c). After the ALJ determines the claimant’s RFC,
the analysis proceeds to step four.
Can the claimant perform his or her “past relevant work” with this RFC
assessment? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv); 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform
his or her past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to step five.
Considering the claimant’s RFC and age, education, and work experience,
is the claimant able to make an adjustment to other work that exists in
significant numbers in the national economy? If so, then the claimant is
not disabled. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v); 404.1560(c);
416.960(c). If the claimant cannot perform such work, he or she is
See also Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 954 (9th Cir. 2001).
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The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Id. at 953; see also
Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100 (9th Cir. 1999); Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41. The
Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100. At step five, the
Commissioner must show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant
numbers in the national economy, “taking into consideration the claimant’s residual functional
capacity, age, education, and work experience.” Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566; 416.966
(describing “work which exists in the national economy”). If the Commissioner fails to meet this
burden, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v). If, however,
the Commissioner proves that the claimant is able to perform other work existing in significant
numbers in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 953-54;
Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099.
C. The ALJ’s Decision
After finding that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act
through December 31, 2013, the ALJ performed the sequential analysis. AR 16. At step one, the
ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged
onset date of June 26, 2009. Id. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the severe
impairments of affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and personality disorder. Id. At step three,
the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met
or medically equaled a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 17.
The ALJ proceeded to assess Plaintiff’s RFC and determined that Plaintiff can perform a
full range of work with the following limitations: he can perform simple, repetitive tasks
consistent with specific vocational preparation (“SVP”) one or two work; and he can have
superficial public and superficial coworker contact with no teamwork. AR 18. At step four, the
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ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing his past relevant work as a stocker selector.
AR 29. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 30.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by (A) rejecting the medical opinion of examining
psychologist Roderick Calkins, Ph.D.; and (B) improperly evaluating Plaintiff’s subjective
A. Medical Opinion Evidence
Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erroneously rejected the opinion of examining
psychologist Dr. Calkins. The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in the medical record,
including conflicts among physicians’ opinions. Carmickle v. Comm’r, 533 F.3d 1155, 1164 (9th
Cir. 2008). The Ninth Circuit distinguishes between the opinions of three types of physicians:
treating physicians, examining physicians, and non-examining physicians. Generally, “a treating
physician’s opinion carries more weight than an examining physician’s, and an examining
physician’s opinion carries more weight than a reviewing physician’s.” Holohan v. Massanari,
246 F.3d 1195, 1202 (9th Cir. 2001). If a treating physician’s opinion is supported by medically
acceptable techniques and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record, the
treating physician’s opinion is given controlling weight. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2).
A treating doctor’s opinion that is not contradicted by the opinion of another physician can be
rejected only for “clear and convincing” reasons. Ryan v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194,
1198 (9th Cir. 2008). If a treating doctor’s opinion is contradicted by the opinion of another
physician, the ALJ must provide “specific and legitimate reasons” for discrediting the treating
doctor’s opinion. Id.
In addition, the ALJ generally must accord greater weight to the opinion of an examining
physician than that of a non-examining physician. Orn, 495 F.3d at 631. As is the case with the
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opinion of a treating physician, the ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for
rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of an examining physician. Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502,
506 (9th Cir. 1990). If the opinion of an examining physician is contradicted by another
physician’s opinion, the ALJ must provide “specific, legitimate reasons” for discrediting the
examining physician’s opinion. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). An ALJ may
reject an examining, non-treating physician’s opinion “in favor of a nonexamining, nontreating
physician when he gives specific, legitimate reasons for doing so, and those reasons are
supported by substantial record evidence.” Roberts v. Shalala, 66 F.3d 179, 184 (9th Cir. 1995),
as amended (Oct. 23, 1995).
Specific, legitimate reasons for rejecting a physician’s opinion may include its reliance
on a claimant’s discredited subjective complaints, inconsistency with medical records,
inconsistency with a claimant’s testimony, and inconsistency with a claimant’s daily activities.
Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1040 (9th Cir. 2008); Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1042-43. An
ALJ effectively rejects an opinion when he or she ignores it. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273,
1286 (9th Cir. 1996).
Dr. Calkins performed a psychological evaluation of Plaintiff on November 12, 2012.
AR 381-86. Dr. Calkins observed depressed mood, flat affect, and lowered energy. AR 386. He
found that Plaintiff has odd beliefs that might offend co-workers on a job site and therefore
“might benefit from some training regarding expected behavior in the workplace.” AR 386.
Dr. Calkins opined that Plaintiff could perform simple work, but noted that Plaintiff “has not
been successful in holding any job for long in the past, however, and likely will need some
assistance attaining and retaining employment.” Id. He diagnosed dysthymic disorder and
personality disorder, noting little evidence of anxiety during the evaluation. AR 385-86.
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The ALJ gave some weight to Dr. Calkins’s opinion but rejected his finding that Plaintiff
would need assistance “attaining and retaining employment.” AR 25. As an initial matter, the
ALJ credited opinions of non-examining State Agency physicians Thomas Clifford, Ph.D., and
Dorothy Anderson, Ph.D., who reviewed the medical record and did not find that Plaintiff would
need assistance attaining and retaining employment. AR 24, 87-108. The ALJ was therefore
required to provide specific, legitimate reasons for rejecting the controverted portion of
Dr. Calkins’s opinion. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830.
As a first reason for rejecting Dr. Calkins’s opinion, the ALJ noted that it was largely
based on Plaintiff’s subjective reports. AR 25. Although the ALJ is entitled to reject a
physician’s opinion that is primarily based on a claimant’s subjective reports when the claimant
is properly found not credible, Dr. Calkins based this portion of his opinion not on Plaintiff’s
subjective complaints, but on his employment history. AR 386 (written summary from
Dr. Calkins noting that his opinion was based on the fact that Plaintiff was not “successful in
holding any job for long in the past”). Plaintiff alleged disability beginning in 2009, and although
he was consistently employed before 2009, the record confirms that he has not been successful in
holding a job since his alleged onset date. See AR 25, 220, 231. Dr. Calkins’s opinion thus was
supported by the objective evidence in the record, not merely Plaintiff’s subjective reports.2
The Commissioner argues that the ALJ was nevertheless entitled to reject Dr. Calkins’s
conclusion because it was based on “non-medical factors,” namely, Plaintiff’s arrest record. It is
apparent from an examination of the entire record, however, that Plaintiff’s legal history is
inextricably related to his mental impairments. See AR 381-86. Thus, Dr. Calkins’s reliance on
evidence that Plaintiff has had difficulty in holding a job since his alleged onset date does not
Further, as discussed below, the ALJ did not provide legally sufficient reasons for
rejecting Plaintiff’s subjective symptom testimony.
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constitute reliance on “non-medical factors.” Sanchez v. Sec’y of Health, 812 F.2d 509, 511 (9th
Cir. 1987) (ALJ may reject a treating doctor’s opinion because it relied on “non-medical factors”
such as the claimant’s age and lack of formal education). As noted above, Dr. Calkins also based
his opinion on his personal observations of flat affect, depressed mood, and low energy. AR 386.
On this record, the ALJ’s rejection of Dr. Calkins’s opinion was not supported by substantial
evidence in the record. The ALJ thus erred in rejecting Dr. Calkins’s opinion that Plaintiff
would require assistance attaining and retaining employment.
B. Plaintiff’s Testimony
Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated his subjective symptom
testimony. There is a two-step process for evaluating a claimant’s testimony about the severity
and limiting effect of the claimant’s symptoms. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir.
2009). “First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical
evidence of an underlying impairment ‘which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain
or other symptoms alleged.’” Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1036 (9th Cir. 2007)
(quoting Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 341, 344 (9th Cir. 1991) (en banc)). When doing so, “the
claimant need not show that her impairment could reasonably be expected to cause the severity
of the symptom she has alleged; she need only show that it could reasonably have caused some
degree of the symptom.” Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1282.
“Second, if the claimant meets this first test, and there is no evidence of malingering, ‘the
ALJ can reject the claimant’s testimony about the severity of her symptoms only by offering
specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.’” Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1036 (quoting
Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1281). It is “not sufficient for the ALJ to make only general findings; he must
state which pain testimony is not credible and what evidence suggests the complaints are not
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credible.” Dodrill v. Shalala, 12 F.3d 915, 918 (9th Cir. 1993). Those reasons must be
“sufficiently specific to permit the reviewing court to conclude that the ALJ did not arbitrarily
discredit the claimant’s testimony.” Orteza v. Shalala, 50 F.3d 748, 750 (9th Cir. 1995) (citing
Bunnell, 947 F.2d at 345-46).
Effective March 16, 2016, the Commissioner superseded Social Security Rule
(“SSR”) 96-7p governing the assessment of a claimant’s “credibility” and replaced it with a new
rule, SSR 16-3p. See SSR 16-3p, available at 2016 WL 1119029. SSR 16-3p eliminates the
reference to “credibility,” clarifies that “subjective symptom evaluation is not an examination of
an individual’s character,” and requires the ALJ to consider of all of the evidence in an
individual’s record when evaluating the intensity and persistence of symptoms. Id. at *1-2. The
Commissioner recommends that the ALJ examine “the entire case record, including the objective
medical evidence; an individual’s statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects
of symptoms; statements and other information provided by medical sources and other persons;
and any other relevant evidence in the individual’s case record.” Id. at *4. The Commissioner
recommends assessing: (1) the claimant’s statements made to the Commissioner, medical
providers, and others regarding the claimant’s location, frequency and duration of symptoms, the
impact of the symptoms on daily living activities, factors that precipitate and aggravate
symptoms, medications and treatments used, and other methods used to alleviate symptoms;
(2) medical source opinions, statements, and medical reports regarding the claimant’s history,
treatment, responses to treatment, prior work record, efforts to work, daily activities, and other
information concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of an individual’s
symptoms; and (3) non-medical source statements, considering how consistent those statements
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are with the claimant’s statements about his or her symptoms and other evidence in the file. See
id. at *6-7.
The ALJ’s credibility decision may be upheld overall even if not all of the ALJ’s reasons
for rejecting the claimant’s testimony are upheld. See Batson, 359 F.3d at 1197. The ALJ may
not, however, make a negative credibility finding “solely because” the claimant’s symptom
testimony “is not substantiated affirmatively by objective medical evidence.” Robbins, 466 F.3d
At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified that he could not work in high-stress
environments due to anxiety and depression and that he has difficulty concentrating and dealing
with authority figures. AR 18-19, 52-53, 56. Plaintiff stated that he hallucinates, experiences
“blackout episodes,” and dissociative events. AR 18-55-56.
In his written decision, the ALJ considered but rejected Plaintiff’s testimony to the extent
that it conflicted with the RFC, following the two-step process articulated by the Ninth Circuit.
AR 19-28; Vasquez, 572 F.3d at 591. As a first reason for rejecting Plaintiff’s testimony, the ALJ
noted that Plaintiff’s activities of daily living contradicted his testimony regarding his
debilitating mental symptoms and ability to concentrate. AR 28. An ALJ may discount a
claimant’s testimony if it is inconsistent with the claimant’s daily activities. Molina v. Astrue,
674 F.3d 1104, 1112-13 (9th Cir. 2012). For example, Plaintiff appeared to spend most of his
time reading novels while in jail, worked in a kitchen, and lived in a dormitory with other
inmates. AR 20, 28, 50. After he was released from jail, Plaintiff attended college part-time,
volunteered at Sisters of the Road Café, and spent his free time dancing and socializing with a
friend. AR 20, 361. The ALJ found that these activities conflicted with Plaintiff’s allegations of
disabling mental limitations. As Plaintiff expressed in his testimony, however, he only had
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symptoms around people he found “ignorant,” and did not deny all social interaction. AR 55,
257. Further, the fact that Plaintiff lived in a dormitory with other inmates not by his own choice
is not a clear and convincing reason to reject his testimony. Finally, Plaintiff only attended
college part-time; his ability to attend classes some of the time does not contradict his testimony
of severe mental impairments.
Second, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff’s description of his hallucinations was vague. AR 28.
This was not a valid reason for rejecting Plaintiff’s testimony. Multiple providers diagnosed
Plaintiff with dissociative disorder and schizotypal personality disorder, and his symptoms have
been consistent throughout the record. See AR 350, 354, 382, 439, 590. The fact that Plaintiff
was not able to provide a clear description of his hallucinations does not, on this record,
undermine his testimony.
Third, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff’s primary barrier to employment was not his alleged
disability, but rather his criminal offense record. AR 28. The ALJ may reject the testimony of a
claimant that stopped work for reasons other than their alleged symptoms and limitations. Bruton
v. Massanari, 268 F.3d 824, 828 (9th Cir. 2001). At the hearing, Plaintiff admitted that he
stopped working at his last job as a roofer because he was arrested and incarcerated. AR 28, 45.
Similarly, Plaintiff stopped attending college because he was arrested on criminal charges.
AR 28, 43. As discussed above, however, Plaintiff’s criminal history is linked to his history of
mental health symptoms and limitations. Thus, the fact that Plaintiff’s criminal record interfered
with his ability to work was not a clear and convincing reason to reject his testimony.
Fourth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not credible because he did not accept
responsibility for his crimes and violated his parole by drinking and watching pornography.
AR 27. As the Commissioner’s regulations clarify, “subjective symptom evaluation is not an
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examination of an individual’s character.” SSR 16-3p, available at 2016 WL 1119029. Again, it
is apparent on this record that Plaintiff’s behaviors and attitudes towards his crimes are
symptoms of his mental health disorders. On this record, Plaintiff’s behaviors and attitudes
support, rather than undermine, his testimony that his mental symptoms are too severe for him to
be able to maintain substantial gainful employment.
The ALJ also found that Plaintiff’s testimony was not supported by the objective medical
evidence. Lack of objective medical support can support a finding that a claimant is not credible
but does not provide an independently sufficient reason for rejecting a claimant’s testimony.
Because no other clear and convincing reasons were present to support the ALJ’s analysis of
Plaintiff’s testimony, lack of objective findings does not support the ALJ’s credibility
determination. In sum, the ALJ’s rejection of Plaintiff’s testimony was error.
Within the Court’s discretion under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is the “decision whether to
remand for further proceedings or for an award of benefits.” Holohan, 246 F.3d at 1210 (citation
omitted). Although a court should generally remand to the agency for additional investigation or
explanation, a court has discretion to remand for immediate payment of benefits. Treichler v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1099-1100 (9th Cir. 2014). The issue turns on the
utility of further proceedings. 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 and the evidence is insufficient to support the Commissioner’s decision. Id. at 1100. A
court may not award benefits punitively and must conduct a “credit-as-true” analysis on evidence
that has been improperly rejected by the ALJ to determine if a claimant is disabled under the Act.
Strauss v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 635 F.3d 1135, 1138 (9th Cir. 2011).
PAGE 13 – OPINION AND ORDER
In the Ninth Circuit, the “credit-as-true” doctrine is “settled” and binding on this Court.
Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 999 (9th Cir. 2014). The United States Court of Appeals for
the Ninth Circuit articulates the rule as follows:
The district court must first determine that the ALJ made a legal
error, such as failing to provide legally sufficient reasons for
rejecting evidence. If the court finds such an error, it must next
review the record as a whole and determine whether it is fully
developed, is free from conflicts and ambiguities, and all essential
factual matters have been resolved. In conducting this review, the
district court must consider whether there are inconsistencies
between the claimant’s testimony and the medical evidence in the
record, or whether the government has pointed to evidence in the
record that the ALJ overlooked and explained how that evidence
casts into serious doubt the claimant’s claim to be disabled. Unless
the district court concludes that further administrative proceedings
would serve no useful purpose, it may not remand with a direction
to provide benefits.
If the district court does determine that the record has been fully
developed and there are no outstanding issues left to be resolved,
the district court must next consider whether the ALJ would be
required to find the claimant disabled on remand if the improperly
discredited evidence were credited as true. Said otherwise, the
district court must consider the testimony or opinion that the ALJ
improperly rejected, in the context of the otherwise undisputed
record, and determine whether the ALJ would necessarily have to
conclude that the claimant were disabled if that testimony or
opinion were deemed true. If so, the district court may exercise its
discretion to remand the case for an award of benefits. A district
court is generally not required to exercise such discretion,
however. District courts retain flexibility in determining the
appropriate remedy and a reviewing court is not required to credit
claimants' allegations regarding the extent of their impairments as
true merely because the ALJ made a legal error in discrediting
Dominguez v. Colvin, 808 F.3d 403, 407-08 (9th Cir. 2015) (internal citations and quotation
No outstanding issues remain to be decided in this case before a finding of disability can
be made. The ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting Plaintiff’s testimony
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or the medical opinion of Dr. Calkins. When the erroneously rejected evidence is credited as
true, it is clear that the ALJ would be required to find Plaintiff disabled. Remand for the
immediate payment of benefits is therefore appropriate.
For the reasons articulated above, the ALJ’s decision is reversed and remanded for the
immediate payment of benefits.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
DATED this 3rd day of April, 2017.
/s/ Michael H. Simon
Michael H. Simon
United States District Judge
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