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Matthews v. Astrue

September 30, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary S. Austin United States Magistrate Judge



Plaintiff Karen D. Matthews ("Plaintiff") seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for supplemental security income, pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted, without oral argument, to the Honorable Gary S. Austin, United States Magistrate Judge.*fn1


On March 28, 2006, Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging disability since October 1, 1990, due to a history of hepatitis C, lymphedema, adjustment disorder with mixed emotional features, polysubstance dependence in partial remission and personality disorder. AR 10. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. AR 10. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). AR 10. ALJ Christopher Larsen held a hearing on November 14, 2007, and issued an order denying benefits on December 26, 2007. AR 8, 9. On May 30, 2008, the Appeals Council denied review. AR 1-3.

Hearing Testimony

ALJ Larsen held a hearing on November 14, 2007, in Fresno, California. Plaintiff appeared and testified. She was represented by Melissa Proudian. AR 8. Vocational Expert ("VE") Judith Najarian also testified. AR 8, 47-49.

Plaintiff was forty-nine years old*fn3 at the time of the hearing. She stated that she was 5'1-1/2" tall and weighed about 185 pounds and that she had been that weight for a considerable number of years. AR 26. Plaintiff testified that she was divorced. AR 26. She claimed to be left-handed. AR 26. After she had stated her contact information, Plaintiff replied that she did not have a valid California driver's license, although she admitted to having had one in the past. Plaintiff explained that her previous license had been suspended for nonpayment of tickets. AR 27. She stated that she did not drive without her license and that she got around either by bus or by biking. AR 27. According to Plaintiff, she could go about a mile, to a mile-and-a-half on her bike. AR 27. When asked about her education, Plaintiff said that she had completed the tenth grade, and later acquired a Graduate Equivalency Diploma or GED. AR 27. Plaintiff testified that she had no vocational training of any sort, and that she had last held a job in 1977. AR 28. Upon being asked whether she could work eight hours a day, five days a week, Plaintiff stated that she could not. AR 28. She explained that her severe mood swings, back pain, and frequently swollen legs would not permit her to work. AR 28. Plaintiff testified that she had been diagnosed with hepatitis C, but did not offer any other reasons for her inability to work. AR 28.

Plaintiff talked about her frequent mood swings, and how trivial things would cause her to "fly off the handle." AR 28. She also stated that she would experience episodes of anger seven days a week, and that she felt that she was "highly strung." AR 29. Sometimes, these episodes would last four to five hours, and Plaintiff would relieve her anger by taking a solitary walk and sitting in a safe place by herself. AR 29. Plaintiff would sit in solitude for three to four hours at such times. AR 29. She added that she isolated herself in this manner about five times a week, and cumulatively spent about twelve hours a week doing so. AR 30. Plaintiff testified that these anger episodes had been going on for several years, and that sometimes she would be tempted to grab the person who had angered her. AR 30. Oftentimes, Plaintiff would just turn around and walk away. AR 30. According to Plaintiff, about a week ago, she tried to attack a girl for stealing $20 out of her purse. AR 30. Although Plaintiff attempted to attack the girl, Plaintiff was restrained by her boyfriend. AR 31. Plaintiff also testified to other violent episodes that had been triggered over the years. AR 31.

According to Plaintiff, she also experiences bouts of depression on a daily basis. AR 31. When asked what triggered these episodes, Plaintiff explained that just reminiscing about the past, and what she had been through would be enough to precipitate the sadness. AR 31. Plaintiff explained that her son's release from prison after twelve years was also a precipitating factor, and that she felt especially sad since he blamed her for his plight. AR 32. According to Plaintiff, these episodes of sadness often lasted four to five hours a day, and she relieved her pain by crying in solitude. AR 32. Although currently not on any medication, Plaintiff had sought psychiatric treatment in the past. AR 32. At the age of thirteen, she had been institutionalized by her mother. AR 32. A year and a half ago, Plaintiff had been in a methadone clinic where she had been receiving individual, once-a-week counseling; but all that stopped when she lost her MediCal. AR 32. Plaintiff was on methadone at the time because her husband had previously gotten her mixed up with heroin. AR 33. Plaintiff testified that her last experimentation with heroin had been about six years ago, but that she had used crystal meth just a few months ago. AR 33. Although Plaintiff denied using meth on a regular basis, she testified that the last episode had been triggered by an unpleasant altercation with her son, and that on that occasion, the stint had lasted three days. AR 34. Plaintiff testified that she financed these drug purchases by recycling cans and aluminum. AR 34. Although she had no steady income, Plaintiff said that she was receiving general relief, and food stamps. AR 34.

Upon being asked whether her mood swings affected her concentration and focus, Plaintiff testified that she could hold her focus no more than half an hour at best, and would often get distracted after that. AR 35. Her son would then have to remind her to get back to what she was doing. AR 35. After focusing for about thirty minutes, Plaintiff would require a fifteen minute break before she could refocus. AR 35.

According to Plaintiff, only she and her boyfriend currently occupied their home. AR 34. Plaintiff testified to doing the cooking and cleaning about once or twice a day. Her boyfriend assisted her at such times. AR 35. Plaintiff also claimed that she had a bad habit of leaving the burner on and walking away. Plaintiff testified to doing the laundry, vacuuming and dusting. Although she tried to do these on a daily basis, she would often lose her focus and the tasks would remain unfinished. AR 36.

Plaintiff also testified to entertaining suicidal thoughts a few times a month. As a teenager, she had acted on those thoughts, but had not done so in the last five years. AR 36.

Plaintiff stated that her appetite had not been good lately on account of the gastric bypass surgery. If she ingested too much, she would often feel miserable. AR 37.

Plaintiff testified to having one friend whom she would meet a few times a week. They would go to pick up her friend's daughter or would go to visit her friend's father. AR 37. But they did not go to the movies, or eat out, or go to church, and Plaintiff does not belong to any other social clubs or groups. AR 37.

Upon being asked about the swelling in her legs, Plaintiff testified that it happened four to five times a week, and that she would have to elevate her legs about five times during the week.

Plaintiff testified that she typically spent ten hours a day elevating her legs. AR 38. This would usually be in increments of fifteen to twenty minutes each, often extending to an hour or two on certain days. AR 38. This practice had been going on for the last couple of years. Plaintiff testified that if she failed to elevate her legs at such times, her ankles would swell up significantly and she would experience a seeping sensation in her feet. AR 39. Although Plaintiff used to be on Lasix for the condition, she could no longer afford it. AR 39. Plaintiff testified to receiving some treatment sponsored by the county. AR 39. Ever since she had been taken off Medi-Cal, Plaintiff had been on "MISP," sponsored by the county. AR 40.

In addition to the swelling in her legs, Plaintiff complained of varicose veins, and that the swelling affected her ability to stand. AR 40. When asked how long she could stand before she would be forced to sit down, Plaintiff estimated fifteen minutes if her legs were swollen. She claimed that she could stand for about forty-five minutes at the most when they were not swollen. AR 40.

Plaintiff is able to walk a couple of blocks before she has to stop. AR 41. Where lifting was concerned, Plaintiff claimed that she had difficulty bending down and standing back up because of her lower back pain. AR 41. Often the pain would radiate up her back and linger between her shoulders where it would remain indefinitely. AR 41. Plaintiff used heating pads and Anacin to ease her pain. AR 41. When asked why she had not sought prescription medication for her back pain, Plaintiff testified that she was not aware that she could get any through "MISP." AR 42. Although she was able to raise her arms overhead without much discomfort, keeping them at shoulder height irritated her back. AR 42. Plaintiff also claimed that the lower back pain was exacerbated by her spina bifida. AR 43.

Upon being asked how much weight she could lift without feeling discomfort, Plaintiff replied not more than three to five pounds. AR 43. Plaintiff also said that at the very most she could sit for an hour before she would have to get up. AR 43. Plaintiff took no medication for her hepatitis C, but claimed that she would sometimes turn yellow in the face on account of the illness. AR 43. She also referred to pain in her left lower abdomen, claiming that the pain would strike up to four or five times a week and had been coming and going for the last five years. AR 44.

Plaintiff also mentioned daily bouts of cramping in her legs and thighs, which were often aggravated by Plaintiff's consumption of water pills and/or her lymphedema. AR 44. According to Plaintiff, the cramping would be more severe when her legs were swollen. Oftentimes, the excruciating pain would awaken her, and she would have to work out the cramps. AR 45. On some occasions, Plaintiff would have to stand under a hot shower to alleviate the pain. The cramps would often last from five to twenty minutes at a time, and often struck up to five times a week. AR 45. The cramping would often hit at night, but would also occur during the day if Plaintiff contorted in an awkward manner. AR 46.

Plaintiff was then asked about her son, whom she saw on a frequent basis, especially since he had been paroled to her house. AR 46. According to Plaintiff, her son had lived with her for about a year to a year-and-a-half. AR 47. Now ...

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