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Smoll v. Astrue

June 19, 2009

THERESA CASTILLO SMOLL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Suzanne H. Segal United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Theresa Castillo Smoll ("Plaintiff") brings this action seeking to overturn the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (hereinafter the "Commissioner" or the "Agency") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). The parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. This matter is before the Court on the parties' Joint Stipulation ("Jt. Stip.") filed on March 18, 2009. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on August 4, 2003. (Administrative Record ("AR") 61-63). Plaintiff asserted disability due to a work-related injury of her spine and wrists. Plaintiff claimed that her conditions began on April 18, 2002. (AR 61).

The Agency denied benefits on initial examination and on reconsideration. (AR 48-51; 53-57). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). (AR 58). A hearing went forward before ALJ Charles E. Stevenson on August 3, 2005. (AR 414-44). The ALJ denied benefits on April 21, 2006. (AR 18-26). Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review on June 6, 2006. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 3, 2006. (AR 5). Plaintiff filed a complaint in the Central District of California seeking review of the Commissioner's decision.*fn1 On May 18, 2007, the parties stipulated to a remand because the record contained medical records that did not belong to Plaintiff. (AR 466; 478-79). The Appeals Council remanded the case back to the ALJ. (AR 468-69).

Accordingly, ALJ Stevenson held a supplemental hearing on April 9, 2008. (AR 547-60). The ALJ denied Plaintiff benefits on April 16, 2008. (AR 448). Plaintiff then commenced the present action on June 24, 2008.

FACTUAL HISTORY

A. Generally

Plaintiff was born on December 30, 1968. (AR 416). Plaintiff achieved a high school diploma and received an associate degree. (Id.). Plaintiff worked as a data entry clerk at Kaiser Permanente until April 2002. (AR 421). Plaintiff has been working for the Ontario Montclair school district since May 2005. (AR 418-19; 554). Plaintiff began as a substitute employee, but has since become a permanent employee. (AR 419, 437; 555). As a result, Plaintiff now seeks benefits for a closed period of disability from April 18, 2002 to May 5, 2005. (AR 448).

B. Treating Physician

At the time of the hearings, Plaintiff's treating physician was Charles Sadler, M.D. (AR 70, 82). On April 18, 2002, Dr. Sadler diagnosed Plaintiff with a cervical spine strain and bilateral wrist and hand strain. (AR 254). On May 22, 2002, Plaintiff underwent a cervical spine MRI. (AR 152-53). The MRI showed a one millimeter central bulge visible at C4-5, C5-6, and C-6-7. (AR 152). On May 14, 2002, an electromyograhpy of Plaintiff's upper extremities was mildly abnormal and indicated probable right ulnar nerve neuropathy at the cubital tunnel. (AR 150). In a report dated June 26, 2003, Dr. Sadler precluded Plaintiff from "very heavy work" because of her neck injury. (AR 180). Dr. Sadler also precluded Plaintiff from heavy lifting, pushing or pulling, repetitive or prolonged grasping and gripping, fine manipulation and prolonged or repetitive keyboarding. (Id.).

Dr. Michael J. Patzakis, M.D., examined Plaintiff as an agreed medical examiner pursuant to a workers' compensation claim Plaintiff brought against her former employer. (AR 374-381). On October 28, 2003, Dr. Patzakis diagnosed Plaintiff with status post ulnar nerve transfer anteriorly of the right elbow, chronic cervical sprain with minimal disc bulging one millimeter per MRI multiple levels and mild clinical carpal tunnel syndrome in the left wrist. (AR 378). Dr. Patzakis found that Plaintiff's condition was permanent and stationary. Dr. Patzakis opined that Plaintiff "should use a computer intermittently and not more than 3 hours a day for a short period each time." (AR 380.) Dr. Patzakis noted that:

[Plaintiff] is precluded from very heavy work in regards to her neck. In regards to her left hand, she is precluded from prolonged or repetitive grasping, from using any hand tools on a repetitive basis, and from prolonged or repetitive data input and typing with her left hand. No restrictions are necessary for her right upper extremity. A reasonable grip strength loss would be approximately 25% of her left hand.

(AR 380).

C. Consultative Physician

Dr. J. Pierce Conaty, M.D., an orthopedic consultant, examined Plaintiff at the request of the Department of Social Services ("DSS") on March 2, 2004. (AR 320-23). Dr. Conaty found that Plaintiff had no evidence of cervical spine pathology and diagnosed her with status postoperative cubital tunnel release in her right wrist and suggestion of carpal tunnel syndrom on her left. (AR 323). Dr. Conaty set forth the following limitations:

Lifting and carrying would be 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, standing and walking for six hours in an eight-hour workday, and sitting for six hours in an eight-hour workday. Reaching in all directions as it relates to the right upper extremity would be slightly limited. There are no manipulative limitations as it relates to gross or fine manipulation bilaterally.

(AR 323).

On October 12, 2005, the DSS also ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Plaintiff. (AR 394-401). The report notes that Plaintiff was mildly depressed and anxious, but concludes that "claimant's psychiatric limitations are none to mild." (AR 399-400). The report indicates that Plaintiff's daily activities included taking her child to school and performing household chores. (AR 399). On March 22, 2004, The Disability Determination Service ("DDS") completed a Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") assessment regarding Plaintiff's physical disabilities.

(AR 325-32). The DDS found that Plaintiff could perform "medium work without . . . limitations." (AR 332).

D. Plaintiff's Testimony

At the 2006 hearing, Plaintiff testified that she suffered from neck pain, headaches and pain in her hands. (AR 421-22). Plaintiff described the pain as radiating from her neck and shooting up her arms through her elbows. (Id.). Plaintiff stated that the headaches caused her to have to lay down for about two hours. (AR 424). Plaintiff stated that surgery on her right elbow had relieved much of the pain in her right hand, but that numbness and tingling persisted. (AR 426). Plaintiff noted that the pain in her left hand continued and that she experienced swelling in that hand. (AR 427). Plaintiff testified that the pain in her hands was so intense that she could not pick up or hold objects. (AR 430). Plaintiff noted that she had "tremendous" difficulty sleeping because of her conditions. (AR 428). Plaintiff testified that the pain and tension in her neck at times required the use of cold packs and ...


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