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TRENT v. BARNHART

United States District Court, Northern District of California


May 14, 2003

BILLY TRENT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JO ANNE B. BARNHART, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Maxine M. Chesney, United States District Judge

ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; GRANTING DEFENDANT'S CROSSMOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Plaintiff Billy Trent ("Trent") brings the above-titled action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g) for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"), denying his application for Supplemental Security Income benefits under the Social Security Act. Before the Court is Trent's motion for summary judgment and the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment. Pursuant to Civil Local Rule 16-5, the motions have been submitted on the papers without oral argument. Having considered the papers submitted in support of and in opposition to the motions, the Court rules as follows.

BACKGROUND

Trent was born on April 20, 1941. (Certified Transcript of Record of Proceedings ("Tr.") 83). On March 31, 1999, Trent, who was then 57, filed an application for benefits, (Tr. 83-85), alleging that he was unable to work as a result of the following impairments: "Blind in left eye; hearing impaired; left foot crushed on job." (Tr. 93.) After Trent's application was initially denied by the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), (Tr. 70-73), Trent sought reconsideration, adding the allegation that he was disabled as a result of a "stroke." (Tr. 74, 75.) After reconsideration was denied, (Tr. 75-78), Trent requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 79.)

On August 2, 2000, the ALJ conducted a hearing and, on December 28, 2000, issued a decision finding that Trent was not disabled. (Tr. 10-14.) The ALJ found that Trent "has no impairment or combination of impairments that more than minimally limits his ability to perform basic work activity," and therefore Trent "does not have a `severe' impairment." (Tr. 14.) Alternatively, the ALJ found that even if, as one examining physician had opined, Trent's impairments limited him to performing light to medium work, Trent could perform his past relevant work in electrical assembly. (Tr. 13.) Trent filed a timely request for review by the Appeals Council, which denied the request. (Tr. 4-6.) On August 2, 2001, Trent filed the instant action.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Commissioner's determination to deny disability benefits will not be disturbed if the decision is supported by substantial evidence and based on the application of correct legal standards. See Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). "Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). The reviewing court must consider the Administrative record as a whole, and weigh both the evidence supporting and detracting from the ALJ's decision. See id. If the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the reviewing court will uphold the decision of the ALJ. See id.

DISCUSSION

Disability claims are analyzed under a five-step evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.*fn1 Here, the ALJ denied Trent's application at the second step, finding Trent did not have a severe impairment and, alternatively, at the fourth step, finding that if Trent had a severe impairment, he can perform his past relevant work.

A. Second Step

The sole issue raised in Trent's motion for summary judgment is: "Whether the ALJ committed error by determining that plaintiff does not have a severe medical impairment." (See Pl.'s Mot. at 2:15-16.) As a remedy, Trent seeks remand for further "development" of the record at the second step. (See id. at 3:25-26, 4:6-7, 4:21-23, 5:1-2, 5:14-15.) In other words, Trent seeks an order directing the ALJ to reconsider whether Trent has a severe impairment. Because Trent does not challenge the ALJ's alternative finding that even if Trent has a severe impairment, Trent is not prohibited from performing his past relevant work, the Court questions whether analysis of the sole issue raised in Trent's motion for summary judgment is necessary. In an abundance of caution, however, the Court will address the merits of Trent's argument.

At the second step, the claimant has the burden*fn2 to establish "he has an impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987) (internal quotations and citation omitted). An ALJ may deny a claim at the second step only where the evidence shows that the claimant's impairment or impairments "do not have more than a minimal effect on the person's physical or mental ability(ies) to perform basic work activities." See Social Security Ruling 85-28, 1985 WL 56856, *3; see also Bowen, 482 U.S. at 154 n. 12 (observing that Social Security Ruling 85-28 "clarif[ies] the policy for determining when a person's impairment(s) may be found not severe"). "If such a finding is not clearly established by medical evidence . . . adjudication must continue through the sequential evaluation process." See Social Security Ruling 85-28, 1985 WL 56856, *3.

A finding that a claimant does not have a severe impairment must be affirmed where the finding is supported by substantial evidence. See Gonzalez Garcia v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 835 F.2d 1, 2-3 (1st Cir. 1987) (holding ALJ's finding that claimant's "degenerative joint disease" and "levoscohosis" were not severe impairments was supported by substantial evidence where three physicians opined, respectively, that (1) claimant had "full straight leg raising, ability to squat and walk in the heels, normal gait, and normal sensory and motor systems," (2) claimant's examination "revealed no evidence of muscle wasting, atrophies or weakness, and that the verbetral column was within normal limits," and (3) "claimant was able to sit, stand, bend, reach, squat, kneel and ambulate well"); cf. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996) (holding ALJ's finding that claimant did not have severe impairment was not supported by substantial evidence where "undisputed evidence" established claimant's fatigue and back pain "inhibited her ability to do basic work activities such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting and carrying").

Here, Trent claims he has a severe impairment or impairments, specifically, a visual impairment, a hearing impairment, impairments resulting from the effects of a June 1999 ischemic attack, and a foot impairment. The ALJ found that none of those "problems" more than minimally limited Trent's ability to perform basic work activity, and thus concluded that Trent did not have a severe impairment. (See Tr. 12-13.) Trent argues the ALJ erred in his consideration of the medical evidence with respect to each of his impairments.*fn3

1. Visual Impairment

Trent argues that two examining physicians, Suzanne M. Stone, M.D., ("Dr. Stone") and Franklyn C. Hill, Jr., M.D., ("Dr. Hill"), provided conflicting opinions as to whether Trent had impaired vision in his left eye, and that the ALJ erred by rejecting the opinion of Dr. Stone without providing an explanation.

Trent's argument assumes that Dr. Stone's opinion supports Trent's claim. Dr. Stone opined that Trent has "loss of central vision [in his] left eye after trauma in [the] distant past," and that his vision in that eye is "20/160 left uncorrected." (See Tr. 122-23.) Dr. Stone, however, also observed that Trent does not wear glasses, and there is no evidence in the record suggesting that Trent's vision in his left eye could not be corrected with glasses. Consequently, Dr. Stone's finding as to Trent's uncorrected vision is insufficient to support a determination that Trent has a severe visual impairment. See Fraga v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1296, 1305 (5th Cir. 1987) (holding claimant did not meet burden to prove his impaired vision constituted severe impairment where claimant offered "no evidence . . . he could not obtain glasses that would fully correct his vision"). Moreover, Trent ignores Dr. Stone's opinion that Trent's "apparent decreased vision of the left eye . . . has not interfered with work in the past." (See Tr. 123.) In short, Dr. Stone's opinion constitutes substantial evidence supporting, rather than detracting from, the ALJ's finding that Trent's alleged visual impairment has no more than a minimal effect on Trent's ability to perform basic work activities.

Dr. Hill, the other examining physician, opined that the pupils in both of Trent's eyes "reacted over a small arc to light, accommodation and consensually" and that "optokinetic responses were present and equal in both eyes and in each eye alone." (See Tr. 145.) Dr. Hill further opined that Trent was "able to read very small print without difficulty." (See Tr. 146.) Nothing in Dr. Hill's report appears to contradict Dr. Stone.*fn4 In any event, to the extent any contradiction may exist, Trent fails to show such contradiction is material as both examining physicians' opinions provide substantial evidence in support of the ALJ's finding with respect to Trent's alleged visual impairment.

Accordingly, Trent fails to show that the ALJ erred with respect to his consideration of Trent's claim to the extent such claim is based in whole or in part on a visual impairment.

2. Hearing Impairment

Trent argues that Drs. Stone and Hill offered conflicting opinions with respect to Trent's hearing ability and that the ALJ failed to explain why he rejected the opinion of Dr. Stone. Again, this argument assumes Dr. Stone's opinion supports Trent's claim. In fact, Dr. Stone opined that Trent has "mild bilateral hearing loss" and observed that during her examination, Trent "appear[ed] able to hear and understand conversation." (See Tr. 123.) As with Dr. Stone's opinion concerning Trent's eyesight, Trent ignores a particular relevant opinion offered by Dr. Stone, specifically, that Trent's "mild hearing loss [] has not interfered with work in the past." (See id.) In short, nothing in Dr. Stone's report supports a finding that Trent's mild hearing loss has more than a minimal effect on Trent's ability to perform basic work activities.

Dr. Hill, for his part, opined that, although Trent denied hearing in the left ear, Trent's hearing was "much more acute than he would have one believe." (See Tr. 145, 147.) In support of this finding, Dr. Hill described Trent's hearing during the examination as follows: "Occasionally he did not appear to hear but when the question was repeated, even at a lower volume, he appeared to hear quite well." (See Tr. 145.) Dr. Hill also reported that Trent stated he had used a "hearing aid," but lost it and did not replace it. (See Tr. 147.) Trent points to no evidence in the record suggesting that any hearing loss he may have cannot be corrected with the use of a hearing aid. See Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 522 (9th Cir. 1996) (affirming ALJ's decision that claimant was not disabled by reason of hearing impairment where claimant was "capable of normal hearing with the assistance of a hearing aid"). Consequently, Trent fails to show a conflict in the opinions of Drs. Stone and Hill, and both opinions provide substantial evidence in support of the ALJ's finding with respect to Trent's alleged hearing impairment.

Accordingly, Trent fails to show that the ALJ erred with respect to his consideration of Trent's claim to the extent such claim is based in whole or in part on a hearing impairment.

3. Effects of Ischemic Attack and Hypertension

Trent's claim of disability is also predicated on his allegation that he is impaired by hypertension and the effects of a June 1999 ischemic attack. This aspect of Trent's claim arises from a hospitalization at the Alameda County Medical Center ("ACMC") from June 7 to June 8, 1999. Plaintiff testified that he went to ACMC because he believed he had suffered a "stroke." (See Tr. 32.) Although the results of an echocardiogram taken on the day of Trent's hospitalization were described as "abnormal," (See Tr. 138), when Trent was discharged the next day, his condition was listed as "stable" and, with respect to "complications," the discharging physician noted "none." (See Tr. 127.) At discharge, Trent's diagnosis was transient ischemic attack and hypertension*fn5 (See id.); he was prescribed two medications*fn6 and advised to get regular physical exercise, change his diet, and seek follow-up care at a clinic. (See id.)

Trent argues that the ALJ failed to correctly determine the effects of the ischemic attack and hypertension on Trent's ability to work. The records provided by ACMC, however, do not indicate that Trent's diagnosed conditions had any lasting effect on his ability to perform basic work activity. Nor does Trent point to any other medical record or physician's report supporting such a finding. Rather, Trent relies on his subjective testimony, specifically, his testimony that the right side of body is "weak." (See Tr. 34.) According to Trent, as a result of such weakness, he cannot lift objects with his right hand, cannot cook, cannot perform chores at home, cannot sit in a chair longer than 25 to 30 minutes, cannot get out of bed without assistance "once or twice a week or more," and it takes him 20 minutes to walk one block. (See Tr. 34, 3940, 4849.) The ALJ failed to credit such testimony and, accordingly, found that any effects of the June 1999 incident had no more than a minimal effect on Trent's ability to perform basic work activity.

"Where objective medical findings establish the existence of medical impairment, but a claimant testifies that [he] experiences pain at a higher level, the [ALJ] is free to disbelieve that testimony." Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir. 1989). "The [ALJ] must, however, make a specific and justifiable finding that the claimant's testimony is not credible." Id. Any such finding must be "sufficiently specific to permit the reviewing court to conclude that the ALJ did not arbitrarily discredit the claimant's testimony." Orteza v. Shalala, 50 F.3d 748, 750 (9th Cir. 1994).

Here, as reported by both of the two examining physicians, there are no objective findings to explain Trent's allegations of weakness in his right side. Dr. Hill reported that he "could find no evidence of organic disease of the central or peripheral nervous system to explain [Trent's] symptoms." (See Tr. 146.) Dr. Stone reported that Trent had "normal" strength and sensation throughout his body, had "no pathological reflexes," and had "normal" dorsiflexion of the feet and hands. (See Tr. 123.) Dr. Stone did conclude that Trent's neck tilts to the right, a condition she diagnosed as "chronic torticohis"*fn7 of the neck "without significant restriction of activities," which, in Dr. Stone's opinion, had been present "since childhood." (See id.) Despite these findings or, more properly, lack of findings, the ALJ, in rejecting Trent's subjective testimony, did not find that Trent lacked a medical impairment that could reasonably cause the symptoms alleged; instead, the ALJ stated he would "give [Trent] the benefit of the doubt that his complaints are consistent with Dr. Stone's diagnosis of chronic right torticohis." (See Tr. 12.) Consequently, as the ALJ assumed the existence of an objective condition that could cause pain or other limitations, the ALJ was required to "make a specific and justifiable finding that the claimant's testimony is not credible." See Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 755.

The ALJ provided numerous reasons in support of his finding that Trent was not credible. (See Tr. 12-13.) First, the ALJ observed that on July 30, 1999, approximately a month and a half after the June 1999 incident, Trent reported to a health clinic that he felt "OK." (See Tr. 175.) Second, the ALJ noted that Trent had not been prescribed any treatment for any pain or weakness Trent alleged he experienced. Third, the ALJ relied on the opinions of the examining physicians, specifically, Dr. Hill's opinion that any "muscle weakness" claimed by Trent was "not of organic variety," (see Tr. 147), and Dr. Stone's finding that Trent's "physical examination [was] normal except for mild neck deformity [that was] asymptomatic," (see Tr. 123), as well as the opinion of an examining psychologist, Thomas R. Hardey, Ph.D. ("Dr. Hardey"), that "from a psychological and neuropsychological perspective, [Trent] has no significant functional limitations in daily activities, social functioning, or difficulties with concentration, persistence, or pace."*fn8 (See Tr. 185.) Fourth, the ALJ detailed inconsistent answers Trent gave at the hearing with respect to when he last worked; the ALJ further observed that Trent's testimony on that subject additionally conflicted with a statement Trent had made to Dr. Hill.*fn9 Fifth, the ALJ detailed conflicting statements Trent made at the hearing and to Dr. Hardey concerning his use of alcohol.*fn10 Sixth, the ALJ relied on Dr. Hardey's report indicating that while Trent denied to Dr. Hardey that he smoked cigarettes, Dr. Hardey observed that Trent "smelled of tobacco." (See Tr. 183.)

Of the above six reasons, the only one challenged by Trent is the ALJ's finding that Trent knowingly made inconsistent statements concerning his work history. According to Trent, any such conflict is immaterial because his work records were part of the record before the ALJ. (See Pl.'s Reply at 3:1-3.) The materiality of a misstatement, however, is not necessarily proportionate to the difficulty of its detection. In any event, even if the Court were to discount the ALJ's determination as to this one matter, the other five reasons offered by the ALJ provide the requisite specificity to support his assessment of Trent's credibility. Consequently, the ALJ did not err in rejecting Trent's subjective complaints about the effects of the June 1999 incident. See Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 755.

Accordingly, Trent fails to show that the ALJ erred with respect to his consideration of Trent's claim that he has impairments arising from the effects of the 1999 ischemic attack and hypertension.

4. Left Foot

Trent's claim of disability is also predicated on his allegation that, as a result of a work incident in which Trent allegedly dropped a sledgehammer on his left foot, he is unable to work. (See Tr. 90.)*fn11 In his decision, the ALJ noted that Fred K. Sondheimer, M.D. ("Dr. Sondheimer"), based on a radiological examination, found Trent had "a moderate hallux valgus deformity, with minimal degenerative changes at the first metatarsophalangeal joint as well as lateral subluxation of the sesamoids." (See Tr. 11, 124.) Dr. Sondheimer further reported, and the ALJ further noted, that Trent had an "irregularity of the shaft of the first metatarsal, which suggests possible previous fracture." (See id.)

Trent argues the ALJ "failed to explain whether he believed there was no causal connection between the objective radiological examination showing hallux valgus deformity and plaintiff's complaints of pain and other limitations." (See Pl.'s Mot. at 4:25-27.) Essentially, Trent argues that because there was some objective evidence that his left foot had been injured, the ALJ was required to specify why he did not accept Trent's testimony concerning the pain and other symptoms Trent claimed to experience as a result of his foot Injury.*fn12 As discussed above, the ALJ did provide specific reasons for not crediting Trent's testimony concerning the subjective effects of his impairments, which reasons included "minimal objective evidence" of Trent's foot and other claimed impairments, (See Tr. 12), as well as numerous "inconsistencies in his hearing testimony and in the written record." (See id.)

Accordingly, Trent fails to show that the ALJ erred with respect to his consideration of Trent's claim of a foot impairment.

B. Fourth Step

As noted, the ALJ found, in the alternative, that, if even Trent has a severe impairment, Trent is able to perform his past relevant work; and Trent has not challenged that finding.

Accordingly, for this additional reason, the ALJ's decision will be affirmed.

CONCLUSION

For the reasons expressed above:

1. Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is hereby DENIED.

2. Defendant's motion for summary judgment is hereby GRANTED, and the decision of the Commissioner is hereby AFFIRMED.

The Clerk shall close the file.

IT IS SO ORDERED.


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