Chambers v. Berryhill

Filing 13


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1 2 3 4 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON AT TACOMA 5 6 APRIL LYNN CHAMBERS, 7 Case No. 3:17-cv-05175-RJB Plaintiff, 8 ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT’S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS v. 9 NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting 10 Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant. 11 12 Plaintiff April Lynn Chambers seeks review of the denial of her application for 13 supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits. Plaintiff contends that the administrative law 14 judge (“ALJ”) erred in evaluating the medical evidence and therefore in assessing her residual 15 functional capacity (“RFC”). Dkt. 7 at 1. As discussed below, the Court REVERSES Defendant 16 Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill’s (“the Commissioner”) final decision and REMANDS the 17 case for further administrative proceedings. 18 19 BACKGROUND On February 18, 2010, plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits, alleging disability as 20 of October 1, 1999. Dkt. 5, Administrative Record (“AR”) 901. Plaintiff’s application was 21 denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. Plaintiff was twice denied benefits after hearings held 22 in 2012 and 2015. Id. Both of those decisions denying plaintiff benefits were reversed and 23 remanded by this Court. Id. After the ALJ conducted a third hearing on October 21, 2016, the ORDER - 1 1 ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. AR 901-27. THE ALJ’S DECISION 2 3 Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process,1 the ALJ found: 4 Step one: Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 18, 2010, the application date. 5 Step two: Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, history of kidney stones, and back pain. 6 7 Step three: Plaintiff’s impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.2 8 9 RFC: Plaintiff has the RFC to perform medium work. She is able to perform simple, routine tasks in work that involves no more than occasional contact with coworkers, no team building or collaborative decision-making, no more than occasional public contact, no customer service sales or counter-type jobs, and no high-paced manufacturing-style production. The claimant must be able to control her own workflow during the workday, and her work must require no more than routine or occasional adaptation to changes. 10 11 12 Step four: Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. 13 Step five: As there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, plaintiff has not disabled since February 18, 2010, the application date. 14 15 See AR 901-27. It does not appear from the record that the Appeals Council assumed jurisdiction 16 of the case. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1484.3 17 DISCUSSION 18 Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner’s denial of 19 social security benefits if the ALJ’s findings are based on legal error or not supported by 20 substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th 21 22 1 23 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 3 The rest of the procedural history is not relevant to the outcome of the case and is thus omitted. 2 ORDER - 2 1 Cir. 2005) (citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1999)). 2 I. 3 Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical evidence in the record. See Medical Evidence 4 Dkt. 7 at 3-8. The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility and resolving ambiguities and 5 conflicts in the medical evidence. See Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). 6 Where the medical evidence in the record is not conclusive, “questions of credibility and 7 resolution of conflicts” are solely the functions of the ALJ. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 8 642 (9th Cir. 1982). In such cases, “the ALJ’s conclusion must be upheld.” Morgan v. Comm’r, 9 Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 601 (9th Cir. 1999). 10 In resolving questions of credibility and conflicts in the evidence, an ALJ’s findings 11 “must be supported by specific, cogent reasons.” Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725. The ALJ can do this 12 “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, 13 stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Id. The ALJ also may draw inferences 14 “logically flowing from the evidence.” Sample, 694 F.2d at 642. Further, the Court itself may 15 draw “specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ’s opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 16 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir. 1989). 17 The ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted 18 opinion of an examining physician. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). When an 19 examining physician’s opinion is contradicted, that opinion “can only be rejected for specific and 20 legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Id. at 830-31. 21 22 a. Dr. Crampton Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to provide a specific and legitimate reason 23 supported by substantial evidence to discount the opinion of examining psychologist J. Alex ORDER - 3 1 Crampton, Psy.D. See Dkt. 7 at 3-5. The Court disagrees. On September 5, 2014, Dr. Crampton examined plaintiff and opined that plaintiff was 2 3 markedly limited in her ability to complete a normal workday or workweek without interruptions 4 from psychologically-based symptoms and in her ability to maintain appropriate behavior in a 5 work setting. See AR 795. Dr. Crampton also found that plaintiff was moderately limited in her 6 ability to perform routine tasks without special supervision. See id. The ALJ gave little weight to 7 these limitations in Dr. Crampton’s opinion because they appeared to be inconsistent with Dr. 8 Crampton’s clinical findings and with the “totality of the evidence.”4 See AR 921-22. 9 An ALJ need not accept a physician’s opinion if that opinion is inadequately supported 10 “by the record as a whole.” See Batson v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th 11 Cir. 2004). The ALJ here pointed to plaintiff’s normal MSE results and cooperative and pleasant 12 demeanor at medical appointments throughout the record as evidence that Dr. Crampton’s 13 opinion was not supported by the record as a whole. See AR 906, 913-17, 921. Specifically, the 14 ALJ noted that “despite the extreme mood fluctuations the claimant alleged at the hearing and on 15 psychological evaluations, her primary care providers consistently assessed normal mood and 16 affect” and “failed to observe the extreme social anxiety” that plaintiff alleged. See AR 916. 17 Substantial evidence supports this finding. See, e.g., AR 571-72 (depression not present, normal 18 mood and affect, cooperative and alert appearance), 574 (plaintiff noted that medication was 19 “working well” for panic attacks and had no concerns), 868 (no recent panic attacks, medication 20 “working for her”), 882 (normal mood and affect, good insight and judgment). Therefore, the 21 ALJ did not err in finding that the “totality of the evidence” was inconsistent with the marked 22 23 4 Dr. Crampton also found that plaintiff had several other moderate limitations that the ALJ concluded were reasonable and incorporated into the RFC. See AR 921. ORDER - 4 1 social limitations to which Dr. Crampton opined. 2 3 b. Dr. Greenfield Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing either to fully incorporate or to provide a 4 specific and legitimate reason supported by substantial evidence to discount the opinion of 5 examining psychologist Curtis Greenfield, Psy.D. See Dkt. 7 at 5-8. The Court agrees with 6 plaintff. 7 On August 18, 2015, Dr. Greenfield examined plaintiff and opined that plaintiff was 8 severely limited in her ability to adapt to changes in a routine work setting and markedly limited 9 in her ability to perform several other basic work activities. See AR 1119. The ALJ agreed that 10 plaintiff was severely limited in her ability to adapt to changes in a routine work setting. See AR 11 922. The ALJ believed that she incorporated that limitation into the RFC, which limited plaintiff 12 to work with no more than routine or occasional adaptation to changes, no high-paced 13 manufacturing-style production, and the ability to control her own workflow during the workday. 14 See AR 907, 922. However, Dr. Greenfield’s report explicitly stated that a “severe limitation” 15 meant “the inability to perform the particular activity in regular competitive employment or 16 outside of a sheltered workshop.” AR 1119. Therefore, an RFC demanding routine or occasional 17 adaptation to changes does not incorporate Dr. Greenfield’s opinion that plaintiff was unable to 18 adapt to changes in a regular competitive employment. 19 The Commissioner argues that the Court should infer that the ALJ meant only that 20 plaintiff would have severe limitations in her ability to adapt to changes as “severe” is defined in 21 20 C.F.R. § 416.921, meaning a significant limitation but not a complete inability. See Dkt. 11 at 22 13. The Court agrees that the ALJ certainly did not intend to confirm that plaintiff was unable to 23 adapt to changes in a regular competitive environment. However, the ALJ’s misunderstanding ORDER - 5 1 leaves her decision lacking. An ALJ must explain why “significant probative evidence has been 2 rejected.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31. “[A]n ALJ errs when [s]he rejects a medical opinion or 3 assigns it little weight while doing nothing more than ignoring it.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 4 995, 1012-13 (9th Cir. 2014). Here, the ALJ tacitly rejected Dr. Greenfield’s opinion that 5 plaintiff was unable to adapt to changes. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ’s inattention to 6 the strict definition of this part of Dr. Greenfield’s opinion was harmless because the record as a 7 whole supports the RFC assessed. See Dkt. 11 at 12-14. However, the Court “cannot affirm the 8 decision of an agency on a ground that the agency did not invoke in making its decision.” Pinto 9 v. Massanari, 249 F.3d 840, 847 (9th Cir. 2001). The ALJ erred by failing either to incorporate 10 Dr. Greenfield’s opinion or to give a specific and legitimate reason supported by substantial 11 evidence to reject it. 12 The Ninth Circuit has “recognized that harmless error principles apply in the Social 13 Security Act context.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing Stout v. 14 Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006) (collecting cases)). The Ninth 15 Circuit has “adhered to the general principle that an ALJ’s error is harmless where it is 16 ‘inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.’” Id. (quoting Carmickle v. 17 Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 533 F.3d 1155, 1162 (9th Cir. 2008)) (other citations omitted). The 18 court noted the necessity to follow the rule that courts must review cases “‘without regard to 19 errors’ that do not affect the parties’ ‘substantial rights.’” Id. at 1118 (quoting Shinseki v. 20 Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 407 (2009) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2111) (codification of the harmless error 21 rule)). 22 Had the ALJ fully credited the opinion of Dr. Greenfield, the RFC would have included 23 additional limitations, as would the hypothetical questions posed to the vocational expert. As the ORDER - 6 1 ALJ’s ultimate determination regarding disability was based on the testimony of the vocational 2 expert on the basis of an improper hypothetical question, the error affected the ultimate disability 3 determination and is not harmless. 4 II. 5 Because the ALJ erred in evaluating Dr. Greenfield’s opinion, the ALJ’s RFC assessment Remand for Further Administrative Proceedings 6 does not necessarily completely and accurately describe all of plaintiff’s capabilities. Because 7 the ALJ erred in assessing plaintiff’s RFC, the hypothetical questions posed to the vocational 8 expert at the hearing were not necessarily complete. Therefore, the ALJ’s step-five determination 9 is not supported by substantial evidence and is in error. 10 The Court may remand this case “either for additional evidence and findings or to award 11 benefits.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1292 (9th Cir. 1996). Generally, when the Court 12 reverses an ALJ’s decision, “the proper course, except in rare circumstances, is to remand to the 13 agency for additional investigation or explanation.” Benecke v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 587, 595 (9th 14 Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). Here, plaintiff requests this matter be remanded to the 15 Commissioner for further consideration. See Dkt. 7 at 1. CONCLUSION 16 17 For the foregoing reasons, the Commissioner’s final decision is REVERSED and this 18 case is REMANDED for further administrative proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 19 405(g). 20 DATED this 28th day of August, 2017. A 21 22 ROBERT J. BRYAN United States District Judge 23 ORDER - 7

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