United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division
LEE J. FISCHER, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
PATRICIA SULLIVAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Lee J. Fischer brings this action pursuant to the Social
Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §
405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security (the
“Commissioner”). The Commissioner denied
plaintiff Disabled Child's Insurance Benefits under Title
II of the Act, § 202(d)(1)(B)(ii), as amended, 42 U.S.C.
§ 402(d)(1)(B)(ii). Plaintiff requests a determination
that she became disabled before her twenty-second birthday,
and thus is entitled to Disabled Child's benefits; she
asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Administrative
Law Judge (the “ALJ”) and remand this matter for
immediate calculation and payment of such benefits, or in the
alternative, to remand for further administrative
proceedings. See Pl.'s Br. (Docket No. 8), at
20. The Commissioner opposes plaintiff's Complaint in
part, and requests that the Court remand for further
administrative proceedings. See Def.'s Br.
(Docket No. 13), at 8-9. For the following reasons, the Court
REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS this
matter for immediate calculation and award of benefits.
was born on November 8, 1988, and turned twenty-two years old
on November 8, 2010. Tr. 117. At the time of plaintiff's
alleged onset date of disability-December 1, 2009-she was
twenty-one years old, under the age of twenty-two; at the
time of the ALJ's established onset date of
disability-April 2, 2012, Tr. 20-she was twenty-three years
suffers from major depressive disorder and generalized
anxiety disorder (under the applicable regulations, 12.04
Affective Disorders and 12.06 Anxiety-related Disorders,
respectively, Tr. 22-26), characterized, inter alia,
by depression, anxiety, panic attacks, difficulty
concentrating, anhedonia,  insomnia, inability to eat, nausea, and
abdominal pain. Tr. 22-27 & 389-91. She is largely unable
to function by, or to care for, herself. Tr. 23-26.
matriculated at Princeton University at age sixteen. Tr. 23.
In December 2009, she experienced severe depression and
anxiety, and received inpatient mental health treatment at
the Princeton University Health Services and Counseling and
Psychological Services. Tr. 344-75. She then left school for
home, and has not been able to return to Princeton since, or
even audit classes at nearby colleges. Tr. 310. In 2011, she
began experiencing stomach pains and other abdominal
symptoms, resulting in an inability to eat, and/or anorexia,
Tr. 389-442; this may have resulted from plaintiff's
depression and anxiety, Tr. 415. These gastrointestinal
problems caused dramatic weight loss: from 106 pounds to 76
pounds in two-and-a-half years (March 2010 to November 2012).
Tr. 386 & 414-15. Plaintiff resides with her parents,
Robert J. Fischer and Jianping Li, who care for her. Tr. 202,
263, 270 & 307.
protectively filed an application for Disabled Child's
Insurance Benefits on October 29, 2012. Tr. 19. She also
protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security
Income Benefits on September 3, 2013. Id. In both
applications, plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of
November 1, 2008, id., though this was corrected to
December 1, 2009, Tr. 114 & 177, as the ALJ acknowledged
at the hearing, Tr. 47. Plaintiff's application for
Disabled Child's benefits was denied initially on
February 20, 2013, and upon reconsideration on August 20,
2013. Tr. 19. Plaintiff filed a written request for hearing
on September 4, 2013. Id. The Supplemental Security
Income Benefits application was escalated to the hearing
level without initial or reconsideration determinations, so
it could be considered alongside plaintiff's Disabled
Child's benefits application at the hearing. Id.
A hearing was held on August 27, 2014, in Eugene, Oregon,
before ALJ Robert F. Spaulding. Tr. 19 & 31. A vocational
expert, Steven R. Cardinal, appeared at the hearing but did
not testify. Tr. 19. No medical advisor expert appeared at
the hearing or was consulted. See Tr. 41-85 (hearing
October 23, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff
disabled under the Act as of April 2, 2012-after her
twenty-second birthday-but not before. Tr. 20 & 31. The
ALJ found that the record did not support plaintiff's
allegations of disability dating from December 2009. Tr. 22.
This determination entitled plaintiff to Supplemental Social
Security Income, but not to Disabled Child's benefits,
because in order to receive such benefits she would have to
have become disabled before her twenty-second birthday. Tr.
30-31; 42 U.S.C. § 402(d)(1)(B)(ii).
then sought review by the district court. Compl. (Docket No.
court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is
based on proper legal standards and the findings are
supported by substantial evidence in the record. Hammock
v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial
evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotation omitted).
The court must weigh “both the evidence that supports
and detracts from the [Commissioner's]
conclusions.” Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d
771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). “Where the evidence as a
whole can support either a grant or a denial, [the court] may
not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's.”
Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir.
2007) (quotation omitted); see also Burch v.
Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680-81 (9th Cir. 2005)
(“[The court] must uphold the ALJ's decision where
the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational
interpretation.” (quotation omitted)).
initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish
disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486
(9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, the claimant must
demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial
gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable
physical or mental impairment which can be expected . . . to
last for a continuous period of not less than 12
months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process
for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v.
Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §
416.920. First, the Commissioner determines whether a
claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful
activity”; if so, the claimant is not disabled.
Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(b). At step two, the Commissioner determines whether
the claimant has a “medically severe impairment or
combination of impairments.” Yuckert, 482 U.S.
at 140-41 & n.5; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). If not, the
claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.
At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the
impairment meets or equals “one of a number of listed
impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so
severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.”
Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). If so, the
claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the
Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482
U.S. at 141. At step four, the Commissioner determines
whether the claimant can still perform “past relevant
work.” Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). If
the claimant can work, she is not disabled; if she cannot
perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the
Commissioner. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141. At step
five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can
perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the
national economy. Id. at 142; 20 C.F.R. §§
416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets this burden,
the claimant is not disabled. Id. § 416.966.
one of the sequential process outlined above, the ALJ found
that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the alleged onset date of April 2, 2012. Tr.
21. At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the
medically determinable impairments of major depressive
disorder and general[ized] anxiety disorder, but that prior
to April 2, 2012, these did not, singularly or in
combination, significantly limit plaintiff's ability to
perform basic work- related activities, and so were not
“severe” under the Act. Tr. 22. However, the ALJ
further determined that, beginning on April 2, 2012,
plaintiff did have the following severe impairments:
major depressive disorder, recurrent, severe without
psychotic features; general[ized] anxiety disorder; and panic
disorder; she thus was not disabled before April 2, 2012, but
became disabled on that date. Tr. 26 & 30.
argues that the ALJ committed three legal errors: (1) he did
not give any weight to the opinions of treating physicians
Drs. James Buie and John Ford concerning the period between
December 1, 2009, and April 2, 2012; (2) he did not consider
the observations of five lay third-party witnesses for the
time before April 2, 2012; and (3) in the alternative, he did
not comply with Social Security Ruling (“SSR”)
83-20. Pl.'s Br. (Docket No. 8), at 4. In response, the
Commissioner argues that, although the ALJ did commit legal
error by not crediting certain testimony, the appropriate
remedy is to remand for further proceedings and evaluation of
a disability onset date. Def.'s Br. (Docket No. 13), at
2-7. As discussed below, the Court finds that the ALJ erred
by not giving weight to the treating physicians'
opinions, and by not considering the third-party testimony,
for the period before April 2, 2012. The Court further finds
that, when that evidence is properly considered, and that
testimony is credited as true, the record establishes
plaintiff's disability onset date of December 1, 2009.
The Opinions of Treating Physicians Buie and
James Buie, M.D.
Dr. Buie's Observations and Opinions
Buie, M.D., was plaintiff's primary care physician from
at least 2006, Tr. 445, through his retirement in June 2013,
Tr. 513. He opined on plaintiff's condition multiple
times in the Administrative Record. After plaintiff's
return home from Princeton in December 2009, plaintiff saw
Dr. Buie for a physical, and he diagnosed her with
“Major depressive disorder with panic and
anxiety.” Tr. 382-84. He recorded her reports of
depression, anxiety, panic attacks, “sadness, crying,
[and] inactivity.” Tr. 383. In notes from subsequent
office visits over the next few months, Dr. Buie repeated
findings of depression, insomnia, and anxiety. Tr. 385-88.
November 15, 2012, Dr. Buie provided plaintiff with a letter
in which he stated that, since her return from Princeton in
2009, she has “been unable to return to work or to
school and [has] regressed into a depressive state which is
now associated with GI problems such as anorexia and
abdominal pain, and insomnia.” Tr. 445, 482-83. In a
similar letter from April 2013, Dr. Buie stated that
plaintiff “has mental impairment [sic] that has kept
her from doing any kind of substantial work since at least
2009 when she was about 21 years old.” Tr. 481. In
another letter from April 2013, Dr. Buie reported
plaintiff's symptoms beginning in fall 2009, including
difficulty concentrating, sleeping, and getting out of bed;
he observed that she had poor judgment and insight; he
recorded her as feeling hopeless, with low energy, low
self-esteem, and anhedonia; and he recorded “panic
attacks with pseudoparalysis, sweating, overwhelming and
inability to function.” Tr. 484. He reported that
plaintiff demonstrated “depression, anxiety, panic
attacks and insomnia.” Tr. 485. Dr. Buie continued:
Since 2009 she has left Princeton; has not recovered, nor had
any substantial work opportunity, function, or significant
treatment of her depression, nor has been able to do any
substantial work or function. She is completely dependent in
most adult daily skills of living. She is dysfunctional in
multiple areas . . . .
Legal Standard Regarding a Treating Physician's
a treating physician's medical opinion is supported by
medically acceptable diagnostic techniques and is not
inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record,
the treating physician's opinion is given controlling
weight.” Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195,
1202 (9th Cir. 2001). “An ALJ may reject the
uncontradicted medical opinion of a treating physician only
for ‘clear and convincing' reasons supported by
substantial evidence in the record.” Id.
“Similarly, an ALJ may reject a treating
physician's uncontradicted opinion on the ultimate issue
of disability only with ‘clear and convincing'
reasons supported by substantial evidence in the
record.” Id. at 1202-03.
3.The ALJ's Evaluation of Dr. ...