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Haynesworth v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. California

September 7, 2017



          JOSEPH C. SPERO, Chief Magistrate Judge


         The Court previously granted a motion for summary judgment by Plaintiff Londale Haynesworth, reversed the decision of Defendant Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying Haynesworth Social Security benefits, and issued an order remanding to the Commissioner with an instruction to award benefits pursuant to the Ninth Circuit's credit-as-true rule. The Commissioner now moves to alter or amend judgment under Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In the interest of efficiency and to avoid an unnecessary expenditure of attorneys' fees at public expense, the Court finds the matter suitable for resolution on the Commissioner's motion alone, without further briefing. The motion is DENIED for the reasons discussed below.[1]


         This order assumes for the parties' familiarity with the facts and procedural history of the case. A more detailed summary of Haynesworth's medical history and the procedural background of his efforts to obtain Social Security benefits is included in the Court's previous order granting Haynesworth's motion for summary judgment. See generally Order on Cross Mots. for Summ. J. ("S.J. Order, " dkt. 27).[2]

         A. Administrative Proceedings

         Haynesworth, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, initially filed an application for social security benefits in June of 2010, alleging disability beginning in 2007. See Administrative Record ("AR, " dkt. 19) at 90; S.J. Order at 2. After that application was denied following a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), Haynesworth filed a second application in May of 2013, alleging disability beginning immediately following the denial of his first application in March of 2013. AR at 20, 99; S.J. Order at 2. The second application was denied on initial review, denied on reconsideration, and denied after a hearing before ALJ Nancy Lisewski. AR at 17-30; S.J. Order at 2. ALJ Lisewski adopted the previous ALJ's assessment of Haynesworth's residual functional capacity, crediting state agency consulting doctors' opinions that Haynesworth was not disabled and giving little weight to opinions of Haynesworth's treating and examining doctors. See generally AR at 20-30; S.J. Order at 22-28. After the Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Haynesworth's request for review, see AR at 1-3, Haynesworth filed the present action in this Court.

         B. Previous Order Granting Summary Judgment

         On July 31, 2017, the Court granted Haynesworth's motion for summary judgment, denied the Commissioner's cross motion for summary judgment, and issued an order remanding the matter to the Commissioner with instructions to award benefits. See generally S.J. Order.

         The Court held that the ALJ failed to present specific and legitimate reasons for giving little weight to the opinion of Dr. James Liles, who treated Haynesworth. Id. at 36-39. Contrary to the ALJ's statement that Dr. Liles' opinion failed to reference his treatment notes, the opinion at issue in fact stated that Dr. Liles relied on mental status examinations and clinical interviews (as described in his treatment notes), and the Court held that Haynesworth's normal performance on in-office tests was not a sufficient reason for the ALJ to discount conclusions that Dr. Liles drew from clinical interviews. Id. at 37-38. The Court also held that a reference in one treatment note to suspicion of poor medication compliance was not a sufficient reason to discount Dr. Liles' opinion. Id. at 38-39.

         The Court similarly held that the ALJ failed to set forth specific and legitimate reasons for giving little weight to the opinions of Drs. Lesleigh Franklin and Laura Catlin, both of whom examined Haynesworth and concluded that he had marked limitations as a result of mental impairments. See Id. at 40-45. Contrary to the ALJ's opinion, those doctors did not base their opinions solely on Haynesworth's own subjective statements; they in fact also administered a number of clinical tests and reviewed medical records. Id. at 40-42. Nor did the fact that their services were procured by Haynesworth's counsel constitute a sufficient reason to reject the opinions under Ninth Circuit precedent. Id. at 42-43. And while the ALJ asserted that the examining doctors lacked access to the full record available at the time of the ALJ's determination, both doctors in fact stated that they reviewed all medical records available at the time of their opinions, which in the case of Dr. Catlin, would have included essentially all of the same records available to the ALJ. Id. at 43-44.

         Because the ALJ's reasons for rejecting the opinions of Drs. Liles, Franklin, and Catlin were insufficient, the Court held that the ALJ also erred in giving great weight to the opinions of non-examining state agency doctors to the extent that they conflicted with the treating and examining doctors' opinions. Id. at 45.

         Turning to the ALJ's treatment of Haynesworth's testimony, the Court held that having acknowledged that Haynesworth's impairments could reasonably be expected to cause his reported symptoms, the ALJ failed to present clear and convincing reasons to discount testimony as to those symptoms. Id. at 45-50. The ALJ did not identify specific testimony that she found less than credible, as required by Ninth Circuit precedent, and the Court found the ALJ's reasons for generally discrediting Haynesworth to be either unsupported by the record or inadequate. Id. at 47-50.

         Finally, the Court held that the Ninth Circuit's credit-as-true doctrine applied in this case and warranted a decision awarding benefits. Id. at 50-52. The Court focused on uncontroverted opinions of Drs. Liles and Catlin that Haynesworth's impairments would cause him to miss more than four days of work per month, and testimony from a vocational expert that even someone with the comparatively mild limitations of the ALJ's residual ...

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