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Barbara Hamilton v. Michael Astrue

January 5, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sandra M. Snyder United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Barbara Hamilton, proceeding in forma pauperis, by her attorney, Law Offices of Lawrence D. Rohlfing, seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for supplemental security income ("SSI"), pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq.) (the "Act"). The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' cross-briefs, which were submitted, without oral argument, to the Honorable Sandra M. Snyder, United States Magistrate Judge.*fn1 Following a review of the complete record, this Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision was supported by substantial evidence.

I. Administrative Record

A. Procedural History

On September 5, 2006, Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits, alleging disability beginning October 1, 2001. AR 11. Her claims were initially denied on March 27, 2007, and upon reconsideration, on July 9, 2007. AR 11. On September 4, 2007, Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. AR 11. Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing on November 14, 2008. AR 18-36. On March 23, 2009, Administrative Law Judge Christopher Larsen ("ALJ") determined that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Act. AR 11-17. The Appeals Council denied review on June 24, 2009. AR 3-5. On August 12, 2009, Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking this Court's review (Doc. 1).

B. Agency Record

Plaintiff's testimony (AR 21-37). Plaintiff (born October 16, 1955) lived with her husband in a mobile home in Sanger, California. She had experienced chronic back pain since a car accident in 1997. The pain and numbness in her back and legs had increased since an earlier disability hearing in June 2006. Plaintiff's physician, Dr. Ong prescribed Darvocet*fn2 and Neurontin*fn3 but Plaintiff took only Darvocet because she could not afford Neurontin.

Because of pains shooting down her legs and numbness in her back, she had begun to limit her driving, traveling out of the mountains ( twenty-mile trip) to shop only twice a month, instead of the once or twice weekly shopping trip that she used to make. Plaintiff could not walk as far as she used to. She was no longer able to do laundry (apparently at a laundromat) because the associated walking, bending, and lifting caused "so much pain I have to sit down." She was able to sit for fifteen to thirty minutes and to stand for ten minutes. She could walk no more than fifty or sixty steps at a time. She rested four or five hours a day.

Plaintiff was able to sweep, to cook, and to do dishes. She shopped for groceries with her husband's assistance. She was able to bathe and dress herself, but needed to sit down to rest after taking a shower.

Plaintiff left school after the tenth grade. She worked briefly at Hancock Fabrics in 1989. She did not work again until she cleaned house and drove for her sister for a month or a month and a half in 2001. Plaintiff quit that job, finding it to be too hard on her back.

Because she could not bend or stand for very long, Plaintiff was certain she could not work eight hours a day, five days a week. Walking was painful and required something for Plaintiff to hold on to. Perhaps as a result of aging or taking pain pills, Plaintiff was unable to concentrate a long time. Plaintiff estimated her constant back pain as four on a one-to-ten scale (one being least amount of pain, and ten requiring a trip to the emergency room). Plaintiff had treated her back with heat, cold, Darvocet, and physical therapy, but nothing relieved her pain more than briefly. She also addressed her pain by changing position: sitting down if she was standing and experienced numbness or pain, and standing up if she became numb while sitting.

Medical records. On March 29, 2006, Plaintiff's physician (unidentified) at Primary Care Consultants, Inc., prescribed physical therapy twice a week for four weeks. AR 165. The agency record includes records of physical therapy at Function & Action Physical Therapy, Inc., from March 7, 2006 through January 24, 2007. AR 166-183. The initial report noted intermittent lower back pain, rated nine of a one-to-ten scale, for the past two and a half months. The therapist observed reduced flexibility of "glutes, hamstrings, poriformis, grads, and hip flexors," reduced range of motion, muscle guarding, and tenderness of the sacroiliac joint upon palpation. Therapy was intended to improve range of movement, flexibility, and pain management. Plaintiff's occupation was noted as "consultant," requiring driving and desk work. AR 173. Her activities included walking and "animals on her ranch." AR 173.

On April 7, 2006, the therapist noted that Plaintiff's left side was sore from working with [her] horse. By May 3, 2006, the therapist noted progress as evidenced by improved flexibility and decreased tenderness, although Plaintiff still guarded her muscles. Plaintiff still reported flare-ups of pain in times of stress. Notes dated November 15, and December 10, 2006, recorded that Plaintiff reported feeling better, with back pain rated two to three on a one-to -ten scale. From December 8, 2006 through January 2007, Plaintiff consistently reported feeling good. Flexibility was improved; tenderness and muscle guarding were reduced.

On October 12, 2006, Plaintiff saw Kevin J. Wingert, M.D., for lower back pain. AR 158-159. Plaintiff's symptoms included radiation of pain into leg, heaviness of legs when walking, and tingling but not numbness. Walking aggravated the pain; sitting improved it. The pain sometimes interfered with sleep. Plaintiff could only sit or stand for five to seven minutes before experiencing pain. Her blood pressure was elevated.

Wingert observed that Plaintiff was alert, oriented, and in no distress. She could walk on her heels and toes and do deep knee bends, as well as flex forward to eleven inches from the floor. Her spine, paralumbar, and pinformis areas were all tender. Straight-leg raise was negative.*fn4

Sensation and deep tendon reflexes were normal.

Wingert diagnosed low back pain, spinal stenosis, and possible developing hypertension. He recommended that Plaintff reduce her consumption of salt and stop smoking. He prescribed Neurontin and Darvocet.

On November 28, 2006, as a new Kaiser patient, Plaintiff saw Melchor Ong, M.D., complaining of lower back pain from which she had suffered for ten years. AR 188-193. Plaintiff told Ong that she had lower spine spondylosis and that she had discontinued various prescriptions because of their expense. She reported that she currently was taking no prescription drugs, and requested a refill of blood pressure medication for her husband, who was also a new patient but was unable to see the doctor.

Ong noted tenderness and pain with motion in Plaintiff's lower back. Ong prescribed refills of gabapentin and Darvocet as well as medications for hypertension and hyperlipidemia. X-rays revealed mild thoracic scoliosis and osteophytosis; lumbar-sacral x-rays showed sclerosis and osteophytosis, mild disc space narrowing at L4-5 with a ...

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