United States District Court, D. Oregon
SHAWN N. , an individual, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
MICHAEL W. MOSMAN CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
challenges the Commissioner's decision denying his claim
for disability insurance benefits , I have jurisdiction
under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the Administrative
Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision. Because I
conclude that the ALJ erred in discounting testimony
regarding Plaintiffs mental health condition, I REVERSE the
ALJ's decision and REMAND this case for an immediate
award of benefits.
filed his application for Title II Disability Insurance
Benefits on August 24, 2015, alleging a disability beginning
on October 31, 2014. Tr. 182-83. In his application,
Plaintiff listed a series of mental and physical ailments,
including depression, panic disorder, anxiety disorder, a
fractured vertebra, and fibromyalgia. Tr. 183.
application received an unfavorable initial review on
December 1, 2015. Tr. 73. The Commissioner denied the
application on reconsideration on March 8, 2016. Tr. 96.
Plaintiff requested a hearing, which the ALJ held on August
22, 2017. Tr. 35, 131-32. The ALJ issued her opinion on
November 16, 2017. Tr. 26. Plaintiff filed his complaint to
review the ALJ's opinion on October 19, 2018. Compl. [ECF
made her decision based upon steps four and five of the
five-step sequential evaluation process established by the
Secretary of Health and Human Services. Bowen v.
Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §
416.920 (establishing the five-step evaluative process for
SSI claims). Tr. 16-17.
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since October 31, 2014, the
alleged onset date of Plaintiff s disability. Tr. 17. At step
two, she found that Plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: history of vertebral fracture, fibromyalgia,
anxiety disorder, and depression. Id. At step three,
she found that none of these impairments meet one of the
statutorily delineated impairments within the SSA, Tr. 18,
but between steps three and four, she found that Plaintiff
has the residual functional capacity to perform light work.
Tr. 19. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable
to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 24 Finally, at step
five, the ALJ found that some jobs exist in the national
economy that Plaintiff could perform with his residual
functional capacity, and that Plaintiff is therefore not
disabled for purposes of the SSA. Tr. 25-26.
reaching her conclusion on Plaintiffs residual functional
capacity, the ALJ made a series of credibility findings that
provide the grounds for this appeal. First, the ALJ found
that Plaintiffs testimony was inconsistent with the medical
evidence in the record. Tr. 20. As to Plaintiffs physical
impairments, the ALJ based this conclusion on Plaintiffs
statements about his activities of daily living. Tr. 21. As
to Plaintiffs mental impairments, the ALJ addressed only
Plaintiffs statements that stimulants are effective in
treating his depression and anxiety. Id., Otherwise,
she held that mental status exams showing Plaintiff did not
have cognitive limitations were sufficient to contradict his
mental health testimony. Id.
the ALJ gave significant weight to the opinions of two state
agency medical consultants: Dr. Lloyd Wiggins, who evaluated
Plaintiffs physical medical evidence record, and Dr. Winifred
Ju, who evaluated Plaintiffs mental health medical evidence
record. Tr. 21-22. She also gave significant weight to the
testimony of Dr. Tracy Gordy, a medical expert for the
disability program. Tr. 22. The ALJ found that the
doctors' analyses "comport[ed] with the overall
medical evidence record." Id. She also
determined from their testimony that Plaintiff "has no
significant limitation in interacting with supervisors and
the ALJ gave either partial or little weight to all other
opinion evidence. This included opinions from family nurse
practitioner Carol Paisley, who treated Plaintiffs mental
health conditions; occupational therapist Trevor Tash, who
diagnosed Plaintiffs lower back pain; and lay-person opinion
evidence from Plaintiffs mother, father, sister-in-law, close
friend, and former coworker. Tr. 22-24. The ALJ discounted all
of the lay-person opinion testimony because it was "not
consistent with the medical evidence record showing that the
claimant does not have cognitive deficits and ... is
consistently cooperative and often pleasant." Tr.
review the ALJ's decision to ensure the ALJ applied
proper legal standards and that the ALJ's findings are
supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g); Bray v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec.
Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (explaining
that the ALJ's decision must be supported by substantial
evidence and not based on legal error).
'"Substantial evidence' means more than a mere
scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant
evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion." Lingenfelter v. Astrue,
504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Robbins v.
Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). A
judge must uphold the Commissioner's decision if it is a
rational interpretation of the evidence, even if there are
other possible rational interpretations. Magallanes v.
Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The reviewing
court may not substitute its judgment for that of the
Commissioner. Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882.
appeal, Plaintiff makes three arguments regarding the merits
of the ALJ's opinion: (1) the ALJ improperly discounted
Plaintiffs symptom testimony; (2) the ALJ improperly
discounted the opinion testimony from occupational therapist
Trevor Tash; and (3) the ALJ improperly discounted
third-party lay person opinion testimony. Pl's Br. [ECF
12] at 5-12. Finally, Plaintiff contends that in light of
these alleged errors, this case should be remanded for an
award of benefits.
alleged disability consists of two categories of symptoms:
mental health symptoms and physical symptoms. The arguments
in Plaintiffs complaint relate to different categories of
ailments-the disputed testimony from Plaintiff and Tash
relates to Plaintiffs physical symptoms, and the disputed
lay-person testimony relates to Plaintiffs mental health
symptoms. Because, as discussed below, I find that the ALJ
committed reversible error in how she evaluated the testimony
related to ...