United States District Court, D. Oregon
OPINION AND ORDER
MICHAEL J. McSHANE, District Judge.
Plaintiff Mary Eda Linn brings this action for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income payments (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
The issues before this Court are: (1) whether the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in evaluating the medical opinion of consultative examiner Dr. Nolan; (2) whether the ALJ erred in evaluating plaintiff's credibility; and (3) whether the ALJ erred in evaluating a lay witness's credibility. Because the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop plaintiff's medical record after finding it ambiguous and incomplete, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED, and this matter is REMANDED for further proceedings.
PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on September 20, 2010, alleging disability since April 19, 2007. Tr. 75, 87. Both claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 20. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and appeared before the Honorable Verrell Dethloff on December 5, 2012. Tr. 39-74. ALJ Dethloff denied plaintiff's claims by a written decision dated December 10, 2012. Tr. 17-34. Plaintiff sought review from the Appeals Council, which was subsequently denied, thus rendering the ALJ's decision final. Tr. 1. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review.
Plaintiff, born April 22, 1953, tr. 204, graduated from high school, tr. 228, and attended some community college, tr. 291. Plaintiff's recent work includes: full-time employment as an office specialist (2006-2007), tr. 228, and part-time employment as a home caregiver (2008-2012), tr. 42-43. Plaintiff was fifty-four years old at the time of the alleged disability onset; she was fifty-nine at the time of her hearing. See tr. 204. Plaintiff alleges disability due to: "dextroscoliosis and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and thoracic spine, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, dysthymic disorder, and anxiety disorder." Pl.'s Br. 2, ECF No. 15.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The reviewing court shall affirm the Commissioner's decision if the decision is based on proper legal standards and the legal findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, this Court reviews the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986).
The Social Security Administration utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. If a claimant satisfies his or her burden with respect to the first four steps, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner for step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to demonstrate that the claimant is capable of making an adjustment to other work after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), age, education, and work experience. Id.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's disability decision is not supported by substantial evidence and is based on an application of improper legal standards. In particular, plaintiff argues that: (1) the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinion of consultative examiner Dr. Nolan; (2) the ALJ erred in evaluating plaintiff's testimony; and (3) the ALJ erred in evaluating a lay witness's credibility.
I. Dr. Nolan's Medical Opinion
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected functional limitations identified by examining physician Raymond P. Nolan, M.D., Ph.D. Pl.'s Br. 9, ECF No. 15. In response, defendant argues that the ALJ properly assessed Dr. Nolan's opinion. Def.'s Br. 6, ECF No. 16.
"To reject an uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining doctor, an ALJ must state clear and convincing reasons that are supported by substantial evidence." Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1995)). "If a treating or examining doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor's opinion, an ALJ may only reject it by providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence." Id. (citation omitted). When evaluating conflicting medical opinions, an ALJ need not accept a brief, conclusory, or inadequately supported opinion. Id. (citing Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001)). Furthermore, "the ALJ has a special duty to fully and fairly develop the record and to assure that the claimant's interests are considered." Brown v. Heckler, 713 F.2d 441, 443 (9th Cir. 1983) (per curiam). Because Dr. Nolan's opinion is contradicted in the record,  the ALJ can only reject it by providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff met with consultative examiner Dr. Nolan for an administrative examination on December 6, 2010. See tr. 298-99. As a result of that examination, Dr. Nolan opined that plaintiff was able to: sit at least six hours in an eight-hour day; stand and/or walk between two and four hours in an eight-hour day; and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. Tr. 299. Dr. Nolan also assessed plaintiff with "[b]ilateral carpal tunnel syndrome" and opined that "[s]he should probably avoid repetitive hand and wrist activity." Id.
The ALJ, after reviewing these findings, rejected Dr. Nolan's opined functional limitations on "repetitive hand and wrist activity" and instead adopted the "more particularized hand limitations" identified by nonexamining physician Peter M. Schosheim, M.D. See tr. 29. In according "significant weight" to Dr. Schosheim's opined hand limitations, the ALJ relied on two bases, including: (1) Dr. Schosheim's specialization ...