United States District Court, D. Oregon
OPINION AND ORDER
Michael McShane United States District Judge.
Brandon Reed brings this action for judicial review of the
Commissioner's decision denying his application for
supplemental security income (SSI). This Court has
jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
now 23 years old, has no physical limitations. The question
is whether Reed's mental impairments preclude him from
sustaining employment in any job with simple, routine tasks
as of April 16, 2013. After two hearings, the administrative
law judge (ALJ) determined Reed is not disabled. Tr.
Because the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of the
examining psychologists, the Commissioner's decision is
REVERSED and this matter is remanded for calculation of
his academic career, Reed has required special assistance.
Even prior to kindergarten, Reed received special education
services. Tr. 556. His mental limitations required him to
repeat the first grade three times. Tr. 546. By high school,
Reed had fallen even further behind. In the 9th grade,
despite earning an A in physical education, Reed could
achieve only a 1.64 GPA. Tr. 306. In the 10th grade, with no
PE class to boost his GPA, Reed could only manage a 1.29 GPA.
Tr. 306. Reed transferred to a school for students with
special educational needs, and continued his path to
receiving a modified diploma with the aid of an
Individualized Education Program (IEP). With significant
accommodations and extra assistance provided by the school
under the IEP, Reed received a modified diploma on April 15,
2013, two months shy of his 20th birthday.
being found disabled as a child as of June 1, 2000, Reed
received SSI through April 15, 2013, the day he received his
modified diploma. Under the regulations, Reed had to be
reevaluated for SSI upon graduating from high school.
Therefore, Reed need only demonstrate he was disabled at some
point between April 16, 2013, the day after he graduated, and
November 26, 2014, the date of the ALJ's decision.
took part in several psychological examinations as part of
his reevaluation for SSI. Dr. Jane Starbird conducted the
first evaluation in September 2011. Tr. 449. Dr. Starbird
commented on Reed's symptoms but did not offer an opinion
as to Reed's mental Residual Functional Capacity (RFC).
Later that month, reviewing psychologists formulated
Reed's mental RFC based on Dr. Starbird's evaluation,
Reed's school records, and lay witness testimony. Tr.
year later, two examining psychologists and a treatment
provider proffered opinions that suggested Mr. Reed's
limitations were greater than those put forth by the
reviewing psychologists. Dr. Karla Causeya examined Reed and
formulated a mental RFC based on her own examination, as well
as the evidence considered by the reviewing psychologists.
Tr. 498-511. Daniel Donohue, a mental health therapist who
treated Reed for nearly a year, wrote a letter describing
Reed's symptoms and limitations as of August 2012. Tr.
514. In November 2012, Dr. William Sack examined Reed,
agreeing completely with Dr. Causeya's “excellent
report.” Tr. 523.
agrees Reed suffers from pervasive developmental disorder and
borderline intellectual functioning. The ALJ concluded Reed
could perform a full range of work given that the work
require only simple, routine tasks, and that Reed only have
incidental public contact and only occasionally engage in
teamwork. Tr. 23. In reaching that determination, the ALJ
gave great weight to the reviewing psychologists'
opinions, and little weight to Dr. Causeya's opinion.
After the ALJ issued the decision finding Reed not disabled,
Reed submitted a December 2014 evaluation from yet another
examining psychologist, Dr. Caleb Burns. Tr. 649-661. Like
Dr. Sack, Dr. Burns fully endorsed Dr. Causeya's
opinions. Tr. 661. Notably, only the reviewing psychologists
offered a mental RFC suggesting Reed was capable of
sustaining employment for any length of time.
issue here is whether the ALJ provided specific and
legitimate reasons, supported by substantial evidence in the
record, for rejecting Dr. Causeya's limitations. As
discussed below, the ALJ erred in not giving Dr.
Causeya's opinion controlling weight. Because that
opinion- which is supported by the opinion of every other
psychologist who later examined Reed- establishes that Reed
is disabled under the act, this matter is remanded for an
award of benefits.
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 in the
record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004).
“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
support a conclusion.'” Hill v. Astrue,
698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Sandgathe v.
Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997)). To determine
whether substantial evidence exists, we review the
administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence
that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's
conclusion. Davis v. Heckler, 868 F.2d 323, 326 (9th
Cir. 1989). “If the evidence can reasonably support
either affirming or reversing, ‘the reviewing court may
not substitute its judgment' for that of the
Commissioner.” Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.
Admin., 740 F.3d 519, 523 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting
Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720-21 (9th Cir.
Social Security Administration utilizes a five step
sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is
disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 & 416.920
(2012). The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant
to meet the first four steps. If claimant satisfies his or
her burden with respect to the first four steps, 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
found Reed had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all
exertional levels, but with the following nonexertional
limitations: that Reed perform only simple, routine tasks and
have only incidental public contact, and only occasionally
engage in teamwork. Tr. 23. In making that finding, the ALJ
relied heavily on the opinions of the reviewing
The State agency psychologist consultants' opinion that
the claimant would perform simple tasks with limited public
contact is given significant weight because it is consistent
with the evidence of record, including cognitive testing and
school reports, as well as the claimant's documented
activities that include writing, music, spending time at the
mall with friends, and household chores.
Tr. 26 (internal citations omitted).
Causeya, who examined Reed after the reviewing psychologists
formulated their opinions, came to a different conclusion. As
relevant here, Dr. Causeya opined Reed would have moderately
severe limitations with the following: maintaining attention
and concentration for at least two straight hours with at
least four such sessions in a workday; sustaining an ordinary
routine without special supervision; working in coordination
with or proximity to others without being distracted; and
completing a normal workday without interruptions from
psychologically based symptoms and performing at a constant
pace without an unreasonable number and length of rests. Tr.
510. “Moderately Severe” limitations indicate
that while the activity is not totally precluded, it can be
engaged only occasionally during the eight-hour work day;
i.e., for no more than two total hours each work day. Tr.
509. The question is whether the ALJ erred in according more
weight to the reviewing psychologists' opinions than to
Dr. Causeya's opinion.
there exists conflicting medical evidence, the ALJ is charged
with determining credibility and resolving any conflicts.
Chaudhry v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 661, 671 (9th Cir.
2012). “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. (quoting Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d
1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005). Generally, a treating
doctor's opinion is entitled to more weight than an
examining doctor's opinion, which in turn is entitled to
more weight than a reviewing doctor's opinion.
Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir.
agrees Reed has severe impairments. The issue is whether he
can perform simple tasks day in and day out. There is a
reason the regulations require that, all things being equal,
opinions of examining doctors are generally entitled to more
weight than those of reviewing doctors. This is especially
true in cases turning solely on a claimant's mental
impairments. Of those who formulated a mental RFC for Reed,
Dr. Causeya was the only one to sit down and conduct an
in-person examination with Reed. The examining psychologists,
with the possible exception of Dr. Starbird, each agreed Reed
would be unable to hold down a job, even one where he only
dealt with simple tasks. Those examining psychologists'
opinions as to Reed's mental limitations are, by far, the
best evidence available as to what exactly Reed is capable
of. In studying the reports of the psychologists, the
transcripts of the hearings, and Reed's educational
records, it becomes clear that substantial evidence does not
support the ALJ's decision giving great weight to the
reviewing psychologists' opinions that Reed can perform
simple, routine work. I turn first to Dr. Causeya's
forming her remarkably detailed, 11-page report, Dr. Causeya
ran Reed through a battery of tests, and supplemented those
results with her own observations of Reed, along with
interviews of Reed's mother and grandfather. Tr. 499. Dr.
Causeya administered the following tests: Wechsler Adult
Intelligence Scales, fourth addition (WAIS); Adaptive
Behavior Assessment System, second addition; Wide Range
Achievement Test, fourth addition; Blue Word Reading List;
Color Trails Test; PHQ-9 Patient Depression Questionnaire;
and Test of Memory Malingering. Tr. 499. During her
interview, Reed's mother reported several things:
although Reed spoke of writing music and forming a band, his
mother never met any potential band members and did not think
Reed ever met with any band members; Reed seldom left the
house alone, or even rode the bus, for fear of being
assaulted or killed; Reed's only real acquaintances were
family members; and Reed spent most of his time isolating on
the computer. Tr. 450. Reed's mother confirmed that Reed
never developed typical friendships and that the few
acquaintances Reed brought to the house ended up stealing
Reed's belongings or coercing Reed into simply giving
away his belongings. Tr. 501.
Causeya noted Reed had a “Marked impairment in the
ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others.
(Brandon will initiate a conversation; however, he is unable
to sustain a conversation and stops abruptly or jumps to
another topic without taking into consideration the person he
is talking with.)” Tr. 501. Although Reed cooperated
with the interview, “his responses were quite simple
and lacking in content.” Tr. 502. Reed exhibited
limited interpersonal skills and eye contact, which were not
age appropriate. Tr. 502. As discussed below, other
psychologists would make identical observations. Reed's
activity level during the interview was unremarkable and, in
an observation that becomes even clearer after reading the
transcripts, school records, and other examining reports,
Reed often “would make statements which sounded more
like a cliché, or something he had heard someone else
say, rather than being authentically his own. For example, he
would say things such as, ‘I like to do things that get
me motivated and inspired.'” Tr. 502. These
clichés, or perhaps a lack of insight, or simply a
desire to say anything at all, appear to be a recurring theme
with Reed. For example, unable to perform subtraction of
serial threes, Reed told Dr. Causeya, “I like to do it
in my head.” Tr. 502.
is ample-and overwhelming-evidence demonstrating Reed lacked
the ability to construct realistic goals. Reed wanted to
start a clothing line, but had no experience being employed,
let alone running a business, and produced only vague
responses to Dr. Causeya's questions about what sort of
clothes he would develop. Tr. 500. Reed expressed an interest
in becoming involved in famous art exhibits or working in the
music business. Tr. 500. Despite telling Dr. Causeya he had
written over 200 songs, Reed was unable, when prompted, to
recite a single lyric of any of his alleged songs. Tr.
Much more likely is the probability that while Reed dreamed
of writing songs, opening a clothing business, or working in
the art world, his impairments prevented him from realizing
how far these dreams were from reality.
seemingly simple things proved too much for Reed. While he
knew the date and could name the president, he could not
recall either Dr. Causeya's name or the area of the city
her office was located. Tr. 502. The ideas he expressed were
uniformly simple in complexity, and Reed was quite limited in
his ability to expound on presented hypotheticals.
For example, when asked what he would do in an emergency fire
scenario he responded that he would go to the nearest exits.
He did not express any awareness for the safety of others.
When asked what he would do if he found a stamped, addressed
envelope, lying on the sidewalk, he stated that he would find
the address, and ask for directions. . . . When asked what
the saying meant, “Don't count your chickens before
they're hatched, ” he replied that he did not know.
Causeya clearly reviewed Reed's school records, writing
“Notes from his teachers at school indicated that he
relies on others to guide him through his assignments and
does not function at school independently.” Tr. 503.
Importantly, Dr. Causeya noted, “Brandon's
appearance is adequate, although his ability to interact
socially is limited.” Tr. 503. One suspects the ALJ
looked at Reed's normal appearance, listened to
Reed's remarkably frank (if entirely unrealistic)
testimony at the hearings, and simply determined Reed was not
disabled. Perhaps Reed's mother put it best when she told
Dr. Burns, “When they had a Social Security hearing for
him, they went by what he said he could do, but he was saying
he could do things that he can't.” Tr. 657. At the
hearing, the ALJ inquired as to why Reed had not looked for a
single job since graduating several months earlier:
Q: I guess I don't understand why you haven't tried
to find one? Just don't need the money?
A: Just-I just think like it's not any good jobs that I
really want at the moment.
Q. What jobs would you want?
A: Like a job where I can work with like musicians and like
music producers ...