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Williams v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

May 9, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.




         Plaintiff Stephen Jared Williams (“Plaintiff”) challenges the Commissioner's[1] denial of his applications for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”).[2] For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and the action is REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this Order.


         On April 22, 2014, Plaintiff protectively applied for DIB and SSI alleging disability beginning September 1, 2010. (AR 139-52.) His applications were denied on June 25, 2014. (AR 68-87.) On July 30, 2014, Plaintiff filed a written request for hearing, and a hearing was held on July 1, 2015. (AR 28-67, 94-95.) Represented by counsel, Plaintiff appeared and testified, along with an impartial medical expert and an impartial vocational expert. (AR 28-67.) At the hearing, Plaintiff amended the alleged disability onset date to April 22, 2014. (AR 33-34.) On July 17, 2015, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, pursuant to the Social Security Act, [3] since September 1, 2010.[4] (AR 24.) The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1-7.) Plaintiff filed this action on January 4, 2016. (Dkt. No. 1.)

         The ALJ followed a five-step sequential evaluation process to assess whether Plaintiff was disabled under the Social Security Act. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (AR 16.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has a severe impairment, namely, depression/bipolar disorder. (AR 17.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (AR 18.)

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

[P]erform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: perform no work tasks involving contact with the public and no tasks requiring more than occasional interactions with co-workers and/or supervisors.

(AR 19.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (AR 22-23.) At step five, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (AR 23-24.) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 24.)


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. A court must affirm an ALJ's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence, and if the proper legal standards were applied. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 458-59 (9th Cir. 2001). “‘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) (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). An ALJ can satisfy the substantial evidence requirement “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted).

         “[T]he Commissioner's decision cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Rather, a court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the Secretary's conclusion.” Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001) (citations and internal quotations omitted). “‘Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, ' the ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)); see also Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882 (“If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion, we may not substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ.”). The Court may review only “the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003)).


         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ: (1) erred in assessing Plaintiff's mental RFC by improperly rejecting the findings and opinions of his treating psychiatrist and improperly relying on the opinion of the non-examining medical expert; and (2) erred in the credibility findings. (Joint Stmt. at 2-10, 23-27.) The Commissioner contends that the ALJ: (1) properly evaluated the medical opinions and properly assessed Plaintiff's mental RFC; and (2) properly discounted Plaintiff's credibility. (Joint Stmt. at 10-23, 27-35.) For the reasons below, the Court agrees with Plaintiff.

         A. The ALJ Erred in Evaluating the Medical Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the findings and opinion of his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Bonnici, regarding his mental impairments and limitations, and gave improper weight to the opinion of the medical expert, Dr. Akins. (Joint Stmt. at 3-9.) The Commissioner argues that the ALJ properly evaluated the medical evidence, including the opinion of Dr. Bonnici. (Joint Stmt. at 10-23.)

         1. Dr. Bonnici's Opinion

         According to the treatment records, Dr. Bonnici started treating Plaintiff in July 2014 at the San Fernando Valley Community Mental Health Center/Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health Center (“LACDMH”). (AR 295.) Prior to seeing Dr. Bonnici, Plaintiff was brought involuntarily to the hospital on April 16, 2014, for feeling out of control and like he was going to hurt someone, and was psychiatrically hospitalized from April 17-21, 2014. (AR 268-82.) He subsequently underwent an initial assessment at LACDMH in June 2014, and was assessed with slowed speech, dysphoric and irritable mood, blunted affect, moderately impaired judgment and insight, and isolative tendencies. (AR 286-87.) He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, most recent manic without psychotic features, with a Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score of 37. (AR 287.) At a July 2014 appointment, Dr. Bonnici noted that Plaintiff complained of worsening depressive symptoms in the context of severe social stressors and requested a change in medication. (AR 295.) He diagnosed Plaintiff with bipolar NOS and PTSD, with a GAF score of 30. (AR 296.) He changed Plaintiff's medication and referred Plaintiff to therapy. (AR 296.)

         Dr. Bonnici continued to see Plaintiff once or twice a month through the time of the hearing and consistently assigned GAF scores of 30. (AR 58, 283-303, 309-13.) On February 13, 2015, Dr. Bonnici completed a Medical Source Statement of Ability to do Work-Related Activities (Mental). (AR 305-07.) Dr. Bonnici opined that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in carrying out detailed instructions and making judgments on simple work-related decisions; moderate limitations in interacting appropriately with the public and responding appropriately to changes in a routine work setting; and marked limitations in interacting appropriately with supervisors and co-workers and responding appropriately to work pressures in a usual work setting. (AR 305-06.) He noted findings of impaired judgment, irritability, depression, anxiety, low frustration tolerance, and difficulty maintaining a schedule, all secondary to mental illness. (AR 305-06.)

         2. Dr. ...

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