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Jacqueline Stoll v. Michael J. Astrue

May 20, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dennis L. Beck United States Magistrate Judge



Plaintiff Jacqueline Stoll ("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 Dennis L. Beck, United States Magistrate Judge.


Plaintiff filed her application on November 29, 2005, alleging disability since July 30, 2004, due to bipolar disorder, walking problems, obesity and back problems. AR 79-84, 103. After her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). AR 44, 45, 66. ALJ Bert C. Hoffman, Jr., held a hearing on November 13, 2007, and issued a decision denying benefits on January 18, 2008. AR 14-23, 817-870. The Appeals Council denied review on April 28, 2010. AR 9-11.

Hearing Testimony

ALJ Hoffman held a hearing on November 13, 2007, in Fresno, California. Plaintiff appeared with her attorney, Melissa Proudian. Witness Loren Wiens also appeared and testified. AR 817.

Plaintiff testified that she was 37 years old at the time of hearing. She was 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighed 250 pounds, though her normal weight was around 210. AR 820. She last weighed 210 three years ago and thought she gained weight because of her medications or because she soothes herself with food. AR 820. Plaintiff currently lives at Board & Care, a boarding home, and shares a room with a female roommate. AR 821. Her duties include wiping the tables after meal time, making her bed and keeping clothes off the floor in her room. She has lived there three years based on the recommendation of Loren Wiens, her psychologist. AR 822. Plaintiff does not have a driver's license and uses the bus for transportation. AR 823. She last worked in 2002 at the U.S. Army Commissary in Germany stocking shelves. AR 829.

Plaintiff completed the ninth grade and later received her GED. She attended an extension of the University of Maryland while living on an army base in Germany, though she didn't receive a degree. Plaintiff has also completed one year at Fresno City College. AR 823. She started in business management but changed her major to horticulture because business management was too difficult. AR 826. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was taking two classes. AR 826. She was in the disabled students program and has not used a note taker, but has requested additional time while taking a test. AR 827. Plaintiff was put on academic probation but her performance improved after her medication was changed. AR 828.

Plaintiff does not have children or a boyfriend. She explained that she is "petrified" of men because her father abused her mentally and physically. AR 825. She also testified that her ex-husband abused her and that she could not forget about the abuse. AR 850.

Plaintiff is having problems with her post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") and has bad dreams, gets nervous and has a "squeezing" feeling in her chest. AR 835. She also has anxiety and sporadic suicidal thoughts. AR 858. She did not think she could work because she has a problem with authority "apparently," and is very sensitive to criticism. Plaintiff also gets sad, irritable, annoyed easily and has trouble concentrating. She also has problems with her knees, stomach pains and headaches. AR 836-837. Plaintiff has back pain everyday and takes over-the-counter medication for it, though she wishes she could see a doctor. AR 839-840.

Plaintiff testified that she did not have problems sitting in a chair, but that she could only stand and walk long enough to get to school by bus and come back- about four to five hours. AR 840-841. She goes home immediately after school because she feels protected there. She sometimes feels like she should hide herself from the world. AR 841. Plaintiff has no trouble with personal hygiene or cleaning her room. AR 859-860.

Plaintiff's depression is sporadic and always changing. Her medications were changed and have recently started helping. AR 848. Plaintiff thought that she felt depressed, on average, for at least half of the month. AR 852. She has flashbacks of violence that can trigger depression. AR 852. On those days, she feels worthless and ends up watching movies and eating. AR 853. Plaintiff can keep up with the movie plot and her concentration is okay. She can watch two to three movies at a time. AR 854.

Plaintiff sees Loren Wiens about once a month for therapy, though she could go as much or as little as she wants. Mr. Wiens feels that she has the potential to work, but he has also seen her unstable at times. AR 843-844. Plaintiff would like to work with people. AR 844. She also goes to group therapy at school, twice a week. AR 847.

Plaintiff's parents live in Germany and she e-mails them almost everyday. She has a brother and sister but does not have a relationship with them. AR 844-845. Plaintiff is "somewhat" close to her roommate, but only because they live in the same room. For fun, they watch movies on television and go to The Dollar Store. AR 846.

Mr. Wiens testified that he has been Plaintiff's social worker since September 2003 and sees her an average of two times per month. AR 863. He helps her get connected with services that would benefit her and provides therapy. He also often gets telephone calls from Plaintiff when she is frantic and upset about something. AR 864-865. Plaintiff has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, recurrent, severe, without psychotic features and chronic PTSD. AR 866. Her most predominant symptoms are related to the PTSD and include decompensation under stress, paranoia, difficulty getting along with others and mistrust of authority. AR 866. She can also lose the ability to concentrate and focus very easily and can "go paralyzed emotionally at times because of stress, anxiety." AR 866-867. Her depression is "almost a resulting thing" from these symptoms. AR 867.

Mr. Wiens did not believe that Plaintiff could currently work at any job for eight hours a day, five days a week. He "want[s] to believe" that she has the functioning and intelligence to work in the future, but her emotional fragility prevents her from working now. Her fragility can impair her memory and her ability to carry out tasks. He believed that Plaintiff was motivated to work in the future. She tries to go to school but it seems like things keep falling apart because of "emotional havoc in her life where she falls apart emotionally." AR 867.

Medical Record

Plaintiff began treating with Fresno County Mental Health in September 2003 and continued to receive treatment through September 4, 2007. She saw Loren Wiens, L.C.S.W., for complaints related to her PTSD and depression. AR 407-629, 752-805, 752-805.

On January 24, 2004, Plaintiff saw Benjamin Chang, M.D., for a consultive orthopedic examination. She complained of chronic low back pain that has been worsening over the years. Plaintiff had not had any injections, surgeries or physical therapy and was taking Vicodin and 800mg Motrin. On examination, Plaintiff was obese and in no acute distress. She could walk on toes and heels and did not use an assistive device. Straight leg raising was negative. Plaintiff had mild tenderness on palpation, but there was no spasm, crepitus effusion or deformities. Motor strength was 5/5 throughout with normal muscle bulk and tone. Sensation was intact to light touch and pinprick. AR 335-337.

Dr. Chang diagnosed chronic low back pain, likely from lumbar strain. He believed that she could stand and walk for about six hours and could sit without limitation. Plaintiff could lift and carry twenty pounds frequently and fifty pounds occasionally. She could occasionally bend, stoop and crouch. AR 336-337.

Also on January 24, 2004, Plaintiff saw Hani Khouzam, M.D., for a psychiatric evaluation. Plaintiff reported that she would be severely depressed if she did not take her medication. She also complained of anxiety and outbursts of anger. Plaintiff reported that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1995, has had three suicide attempts and was physically and mentally abused by her father. Plaintiff was currently taking Depakote, Wellbutrin, Neurontin, Buspar and pain medications. AR 338-339.

Plaintiff told Dr. Khouzam that she was unable to work because when she worked in the past, she got into conflicts with her co-workers due to difficulty controlling her rage. On examination, Plaintiff was cooperative with an appropriate affect. She indicated that she was tired and had gained twenty five pounds in the past three months. Plaintiff was alert and oriented to time, place, person and current situation and had good recent, remote and immediate memory. Plaintiff had a good fund of knowledge in the area of business, though in the past she could not perform a job where people were "practicing mobbing" on her. In the future, Plaintiff planned to pursue business administration jobs. Plaintiff could follow a three-step command and insight and judgment were intact. AR 339-340.

Dr. Khouzam diagnosed bipolar disorder, mixed, only stable when she takes her medications. He also noted that Plaintiff had stressors related to living in a board and room facility, a current conflict with her boyfriend and ongoing financial pressure. Her GAF was 65. Dr. Khouzam opined that Plaintiff could perform repetitive tasks. She could also perform complex tasks if she was not anxious. Plaintiff could accept instruction from supervisors, but she worries that she would sometimes lose control of her anger. Plaintiff was putting "extreme effort" into her studies and had obtained a "B," though she was worried that she would fail if she did not take her medication and attend therapy. Due to her past history of abuse, Plaintiff was worried that any unusual stress many cause her to become frustrated and go into severe depression. She also worried that stress can cause her to relapse into a recurrence of suicidal ideations and intentions. AR 340-341.

On March 5, 2004, State Agency physician Evangeline Murillo, M.D., completed a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment form. She opined that Plaintiff was moderately limited in her ability to carry out detailed instructions, but was capable of understanding and remembering adequately for very simple, one to two step tasks along with more complex tasks. She could sustain concentration and persistence sufficiently to perform very short and simple instructions consistently in the workplace and would not require additional supervision. Plaintiff would not have difficulty adapting to normal changes in the workplace. AR 342-344.

In an accompanying Psychiatric Review Technique form, Dr. Murillo opined that Plaintiff had mild restrictions in activities of daily living, mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning and mild difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace. AR 356-369.

Also on March 5, 2004, State Agency physician Brian Ginsburg, M.D., completed a Physical Residual Functional Capacity Assessment form. He opined that Plaintiff could lift fifty pounds occasionally, twenty five pounds frequently, stand and/or walk for six hours and sit for six hours. Plaintiff could occasionally stoop, kneel and crouch. AR 346-354.

In August 2004, Plaintiff reported sleeping problems, increased anxiety and mood swings. Her medications were changed. AR 544. On September 7, 2004, Plaintiff was still having ...

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