United States District Court, D. Arizona
Christopher P. Dallas, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.
JOHN Z. BOYLE, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Christopher P. Dallas seeks review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying his application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1; Doc. 21.) Defendant concedes error and requests that the Court remand this case for further proceedings. (Doc. 26; Doc. 27.) For the reasons below, the Court will reverse the decision of the Commissioner and remand this case to the Social Security Administration for an award of benefits.
On July 28, 2009, Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. (AR 14.) Plaintiff alleged that he became unable to work on January 1, 2007,  due to a variety of conditions, including headaches, bipolar disorder, organic mental disorder, and anxiety related disorder. (Id. at 14, 16, 205.) On February 24, 2010, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application. (Id. at 14.) On August 26, 2010, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's request for reconsideration. (Id. ) Pursuant to Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held on January 31, 2012, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Earl C. Cates, Jr. (Id. at 14, 22.) In a decision dated February 17, 2012, the ALJ ruled Plaintiff is not entitled to disability benefits because he was "not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2011, the last date insured." (Id. at 22.) In August 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, and the decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (Id. at 1-10.)
Having exhausted the administrative review process, on October 8, 2013, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision by filing a Complaint in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1.) On June 19, 2014, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief, seeking remand of this case to the Social Security Administration for an award of disability benefits. (Doc. 21.) On August 20, 2014, Defendant filed a Motion to Remand, agreeing that the ALJ committed legal error, but requesting that the Court remand this matter for further proceedings. (Doc. 26; Doc. 27.) On September 26, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Response to Defendant's Motion, again arguing that remand for an award of benefits is appropriate. (Doc. 30.) Defendant has not filed a Reply and the time to do so has passed.
a. TheALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of Dr. Larry J. Cowley and Dr. Steven Hirdes.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to provide specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence for rejecting the medical opinions of Dr. Cowley, treating psychiatrist, and Dr. Hirdes, examining psychologist, regarding Plaintiff's mental impairments and, in doing so, committed legal error. (Doc. 21 at 12-25); see also Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008)) ("If a treating or examining doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor's opinion, an ALJ may only reject it by providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence."); Cotton v. Bowen, 799 F.2d 1403, 1408 (9th Cir. 1986) (An ALJ can meet the "specific and legitimate reasons" standard "by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.").
In its Motion to Remand and supporting Memorandum, Defendant concedes that "the ALJ's decision was ultimately deficient, " but Defendant does not specify whether it agrees that the ALJ erred in each way identified by Plaintiff in his Opening Brief. (Doc. 26; Doc. 27.) However, based on Defendant's request to remand this matter to, among other things, accord "appropriate weight to the opinion evidence of record, " and Defendant's failure to contest Plaintiff's assertions that the ALJ erred in weighing the opinions of Dr. Cowley and Dr. Hirdes, the Court assumes that Defendant concedes the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of both physicians. (Doc. 21; Doc. 26.)
Based on its review of the record, the Court accepts Defendant's concession of error regarding the ALJ's rejection of Dr. Cowley's and Dr. Hirdes' medical opinions. Having determined that the ALJ erred in weighing medical source evidence, the only remaining issue for the Court is whether to remand this case for an award of benefits or for further proceedings.
b. Remand for an award of benefits is appropriate.
If the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence or suffers from legal error, the court has discretion to reverse and remand either for an award of benefits or for further administrative proceedings. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1292 (9th Cir. 1996). Under the Ninth Circuit's credit-as-true standard, courts may credit as true improperly rejected medical opinions and remand for an award of benefits if each of the following are satisfied: "(1) the record has been fully developed and further administrative proceedings would serve no useful purpose; (2) the ALJ has failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting evidence, whether claimant testimony or medical opinion; and (3) if the improperly discredited evidence were credited as true, the ALJ would be required to find the claimant disabled on remand." Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1020 (citing Ryan, 528 F.3d at 1202, Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1041 (9th Cir. 2007), Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 640 (9th Cir. 2007), Benecke v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 587, 595 (9th Cir. 2004), and Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1292). If the "credit-as-true rule" is satisfied, the Court may remand for further proceedings, instead of for an award of benefits, only "when the record as a whole creates serious doubt as to whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act." Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1021.
i. When appropriately credited as true, the opinions of Dr. Cowley and Dr. Hirdes require the ALJ to find that Plaintiff is disabled.
Defendant argues that "further proceedings would be useful for the purpose of further development of the record and the resolution of outstanding issues." (Doc. 27 at 4.) Defendant asserts that the ALJ's development of the evidence was deficient and, on ...