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Shawn N. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Oregon

November 13, 2019

SHAWN N. [1], an individual, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff challenges the Commissioner's decision denying his claim for disability insurance benefits [1], 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.


         Plaintiff filed his application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits on August 24, 2015, alleging a disability beginning on October 31, 2014. Tr. 182-83.[2] 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.

         Plaintiffs 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 1].


         The ALJ 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.

         At step 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.

         In 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.

         Second, 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 coworkers." Id.

         Third, 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.[3] 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. 24.[4]


         I 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.


         On 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.

         Plaintiffs 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 ...

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