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Rosalie E.B. v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

September 24, 2018

ROSALIE E.B., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINSTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JOLIE A. RUSSO, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Rosalie B. brings this action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits. All parties have consented to allow a Magistrate Judge enter final orders and judgment in this case in accordance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this case remanded for the immediate payment of benefits.

         BACKGROUND

         Born in 1956, plaintiff alleges disability beginning July 1, 2012, [2] due to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) stemming from childhood abuse. Tr. 200, 229-37, 343. On March 30, 2016, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, finding plaintiff disabled as of May 10, 2013. Tr. 14-26. After the Appeals Council denied her request for review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court. Tr. 1-6.

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         At step one of the five step sequential evaluation process outlined above, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Tr. 16. At step two, the ALJ determined plaintiff's depressive disorder and PTSD were severe. Id. At step three, the ALJ found plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment prior to May 10, 2013. Tr. 17.

         Because she did not establish presumptive disability at step three as of the alleged onset date, the ALJ continued to evaluate how plaintiff's impairments affected her ability to work. The ALJ resolved that, as of the alleged onset date, plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform “a full range of work at all exertional levels” but with the following non-exertional limitations: “simple routine tasks consistent with a reasoning level of two and unskilled work as defined by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, ” and “occasional interaction with the public.” Tr. 18.

         At step four, the ALJ determined plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. Tr. 21. At step five, the ALJ concluded that, between July 1, 2012, and May 9, 2013, plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs in the national and local economy despite her impairments, such as industrial cleaner, laboratory equipment cleaner, and hand packager. Tr. 22. However, beginning on May 10, 2013, the ALJ found that plaintiff was disabled pursuant to Listing 12.06. Tr. 23-25.

         DISCUSSION

         This case hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence in the record to establish an earlier disability onset date. Specifically, plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to weigh the June 2012 and subsequent medical opinion evidence from treating psychiatrist Victor Richenstein, M.D.; (2) discrediting her hearing testimony regarding the extent of her symptoms on or around July 1, 2012; and (3) rejecting the lay witness testimony regarding the period prior to May 10, 2013.

         The Commissioner concedes harmful legal error such that the sole issue on review is the proper legal remedy.[3] Plaintiff contends Dr. Richenstein's opinion and her subjective symptom statements should be credited as true, and this case remanded for the immediate payment of benefits. Conversely, the Commissioner asserts further proceedings are warranted because “the inference of a disability onset date without the help of a medical expert is inconsistent with SSR 83-20 and Ninth Circuit case law.” Def.'s Mot. Remand 5 (doc. 21).

         The decision whether to remand for further proceedings or for the immediate payment of benefits lies within the discretion of the court. Treichler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1101-02 (9th Cir. 2014). Nevertheless, a remand for an award of benefits is generally appropriate when: (1) the ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting evidence; (2) the record has been fully developed, there are no outstanding issues that must be resolved, and further administrative proceedings would not be useful; and (3) after crediting the relevant evidence, “the record, taken as a whole, leaves not the slightest uncertainty” concerning disability. Id. at 1100-01 (citations omitted); see also Dominguez v. Colvin, 808 F.3d 403, 407-08 (9th Cir. 2015) (summarizing the standard for determining the proper remedy).

         Upon review of the record, the Court finds remand for the immediate payment of benefits is proper. Initially, as noted above, it is undisputed the ALJ committed reversible error in resolving plaintiff's claim. Notably, a plain reading of the ALJ's decision confirms that he neglected to afford any weight to Dr. Richenstein's opinion. Tr. 21. As plaintiff's treating mental health provider, Dr. Richenstein's opinion constituted relevant and probative evidence that the ALJ was required to discuss. See Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.3d 1393, 1395 (9th Cir.1984) (the ALJ must explain the rejection of all relevant and probative evidence).

         Indeed, contrary to the Commissioner's assertion, Dr. Richenstein did not merely provide a Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score. Rather, Dr. Richenstein was significantly involved with plaintiff's treatment; he provided regular counseling for eight months and prescribed multiple psychotropic medications. Tr. 346-54. Moreover, because the Social Security Administration was unable to secure records from the other doctor (i.e., Yan Tan Cheng, M.D.) who treated plaintiff prior to May 10, 2013, Dr. Richenstein's records represent the only medical evidence from the dispositive time-frame. Tr. 49, 56, 60-62, 74-77, 108, 312, 341, 354; see also Coaty v. Colvin, 2015 WL 1137189, *4-5 (D. Or. Mar. 11, 2015), aff'd, 673 Fed.Appx. 787 (9th ...


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