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Lisa D. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

March 5, 2019

LISA D., [1] Plaintiff,

          OPINION & ORDER


         United States Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin issued his Findings and Recommendation ("F&R") on November 28, 2018 (doc. 16). Judge Coffin recommended that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded for further proceedings with regard to Plaintiffs claim for disability insurance benefits. The F&R is now before me pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Rule 72 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. I review de novo those portions of the F&R to which objection is made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); Holder v. Holder, 392 F.3d 1009, 1022 (9th Cir. 2004). For the reasons that follow, the Court ADOPTS Judge Coffin's F&R and REMANDS the case for further proceedings.


         Under the Federal Magistrates Act ("Act"), the Court may "accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). If a party objects to a magistrate judge's F&R, "the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." Id; Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3). For those portions of a magistrate judge's F&R to which neither party has objected, the Act does not prescribe any standard of review. United States, v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc) (holding that the court must review de novo magistrate judge's findings and recommendations if objection is made, "but not otherwise"). Although in the absence of objections no review is required, the Act "does not preclude further review by the district judge[] sna sponte . . . under a de novo or any other standard." Thomas v. Am, 474 U.S. 140, 154 (1985).

         The Commissioner timely objects to Judge Coffin's F&R and those objections are discussed below.


         Judge Coffin determined that the ALJ erred in relying on the opinion of the examining physician, Dr. Maughan, because Dr. Maughan "did not consider, mention, or even indicate an awareness of plaintiffs diagnosis of Lyme disease when assessing plaintiffs functional limitations." F&R at 4. The Commissioner makes two objections to Judge Coffin's F&R: (i) no agency regulation, ruling, or Ninth Circuit case law precludes an ALJ from relying on a doctor's opinion merely because the doctor did not diagnose Lyme disease, and (ii) even if Dr. Maughan's findings were not worthy of reliance, the ALJ nonetheless provided other relevant reasons for rejecting Plaintiffs allegations, Ms. Paetzhold's opinion, and Dr. Dietlein's opinion.

         I agree with Judge Coffin that further proceedings are necessary. On remand, the ALJ should contact Dr. Maughan, Dr. Dietlein, and Ms. Paetzhold to obtain more specific information in light of Plaintiff s Lyme Disease and conduct a new step 5 analysis.

         Lyme disease is a unique illness. As the record in Plaintiffs case indicates, its symptoms are elusive, and it can take many attempts to receive a proper diagnosis. Even once diagnosed, the disease's effects can be unpredictable and only show themselves on limited occasions during "flare ups." As Dr. Dietlein, one of Plaintiffs examining psychologists explained, individuals with Lyme disease often have episodes of good and poor functioning-both physical and mental functioning can be impacted, Therefore, a snapshot assessment of Plaintiff s functional limitations without considering Plaintiffs underlying Lyme disease cannot be given significant deference.

         In his twenty-minute exam, Dr. Maughan did not indicate any awareness of Plaintiffs Lyme disease. Judge Coffin thought that this failure was legally problematic. Judge Coffin's F&R took issue with the ALJ's reliance on Dr. Maughan's opinion because it failed to acknowledge the possibility that Plaintiff was essentially just having a "good day" on the day that Dr. Maughan examined her. Dr. Maughan was, after all, only Plaintiffs examining physician and therefore did not have the benefit of a long treating relationship with Plaintiff to contextualize his assessment.

         Judge Coffin's F&R also indicates that he believed the soundness of the ALJ's reliance on Dr. Maughan's opinion was a threshold issue. And if reliance on Dr. Maughan's testimony was flawed, then so was the ALJ's decision to discount the testimony and opinion evidence from Plaintiff and her other medical providers based on Dr. Maughan's findings.

         I. Plaintiff's Testimony

         The Commissioner objects to Judge Coffin's assessment of the ALJ's decision to discredit Plaintiffs testimony so I review that section de novo. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C).

         As Judge Coffin explained, one of the reasons provided for rejecting Plaintiffs testimony was its inconsistency with the medical evidence. But the medical evidence was largely a reference to Dr. Maughan's opinion ...

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