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Liu v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. California

May 4, 2017

JIN LIU, Plaintiff,


          MARIA-ELENA JAMES United States Magistrate Judge.


         Plaintiff Jin Liu appealed the denial of his application for Social Security Benefits by commencing an action in this Court. See Compl., Dkt. No. 1. The Court granted in part and denied in part Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, finding the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) had erred in discounting the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Leyba. See Order at 13-16, Dkt. No. 25. The Court remanded the action because the “case would benefit from further administrative proceedings to give the ALJ the opportunity to develop the record by obtaining additional information from Dr. Leyba or Dr. Steh, or requiring Plaintiff to undergo a mental health examination with an [Social Security Administration (“SSA”)] consultant.” Id. at 16; see also id. at 19 (“The case is remanded for further proceedings. On remand, the ALJ shall obtain additional information from Dr. Leyba and/or Dr. Steh, and may require Plaintiff to undergo a mental health evaluation.”).

         Plaintiff now moves to alter or amend the Court's judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), arguing the Court erred by failing to apply the credit as true doctrine and remanding the case instead of ordering payment of benefits. See Mot. Defendant filed an Opposition (Dkt. No. 30); Plaintiff did not file a reply.

         For the reasons below, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Plaintiff's Motion. It amends its judgment to remove its direction requiring the ALJ to obtain additional information from Dr. Leyba and/or Steh, and the reference to obtaining a mental health examination from an SSA consultant; however, it does not otherwise amend its prior decision to remand the action for further administrative proceedings.


         A Rule 59(e) motion may be granted on four grounds: “1) the motion is necessary to correct manifest errors of law or fact upon which the judgment is based; 2) the moving party presents newly discovered or previously unavailable evidence, 3) the motion is necessary to prevent manifest injustice; or 4) there is an intervening change in controlling law.” Turner v. Burlington N. Santa Fe R.R. Co., 338 F.3d 1058, 1063 (9th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Plaintiff invokes the first and third grounds. See Mot. at 1.

         A. The Credit-As-True Doctrine[1]

         Generally when the SSA does not determine a claimant's application properly, “the proper course, except in rare circumstances, is to remand to the agency for additional investigation or explanation.” Benecke v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 587, 595 (9th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). In the Ninth Circuit, these rare circumstances include when improperly rejected evidence, such as a claimant's testimony or the opinion of a treating physician, “should be credited and an immediate award of benefits directed.” Harman v. Apfel, 211 F.3d 1172, 1178 (9th Cir. 2000) (quoting Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1292 (9th Cir. 1996)). This “credit-as-true doctrine” incentivizes careful analysis during an ALJ's first review of the credibility of claimants' testimony and promotes efficient and timely final decisions for claimants, many of whom “‘suffer from painful and debilitating conditions, as well as severe economic hardship.'” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1019-20 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Varney v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 859 F.2d 1396, 1398-99 (9th Cir. 1988)). “‘[I]f grounds for [concluding that a claimant is not disabled] exist, it is both reasonable and desirable to require the ALJ to articulate them in the original decision.'” Id. at 1020 (quoting Varney, 859 F.2d at 1399) (alterations in original). The Ninth Circuit recently reaffirmed the validity of the doctrine in this Circuit, and noted that its own “precedent and the objectives of the credit-as-true rule foreclose the argument that a remand for the purpose of allowing the ALJ to have a mulligan qualifies as a remand for a ‘useful purpose' under the first part of credit-as-true analysis.” Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1021.

         In applying the “credit-as-true” doctrine, district courts in the Ninth Circuit

should credit evidence that was rejected during the administrative process and remand for an immediate award of benefits if (1) the ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the evidence; (2) there are no outstanding issues that must be resolved before a determination of disability can be made; and (3) it is clear from the record that the ALJ would be required to find the claimant disabled were such evidence credited.

Benecke, 379 F.3d at 593. The record has not been fully developed if “there is a need to resolve conflict and ambiguities, or the presentation of further evidence may well prove enlightening in light of the passage of time.” Treichler v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 1090, 1101 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks, citations, and modifications omitted). In Treichler, the Ninth Circuit clarified that, in the second step, the court assesses “whether there are outstanding issues requiring resolution before” crediting the claimant's testimony as true. Id. at 1105-06. Legal error by an ALJ, in and of itself, does not require a court to accept the claimant's testimony as true. Id. at 1106. Rather, “[w]here there is conflicting evidence, and not all essential factual issues have been resolved, a remand for an award of benefits is inappropriate.” Id. at 1101. Furthermore, even when the three Benecke elements are satisfied, courts must remand cases for further proceedings when “an evaluation of the record as a whole creates serious doubt that a claimant is, in fact, disabled.” Garrison, 750 F.3d at 1020; see also Dominguez v. Colvin, 808 F.3d 403, 407-08 (9th Cir. 2015), as amended (Feb. 5, 2016) (“[T]he district court must consider the testimony or opinion that the ALJ improperly rejected, in the context of the otherwise undisputed record, and determine whether the ALJ would necessarily have to conclude that the claimant were disabled if that testimony or opinion were deemed true. If so, the district court may exercise its discretion to remand the case for an award of benefits. [Cite.] A district court is generally not required to exercise such discretion, however.”).

         C. Plaintiff's Argument

         The undersigned granted Plaintiffs Motion in part, because the reasons the ALJ articulated for rejecting Dr. Leyba's ...

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