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Yvonne Bratcher v. Michael J. Astrue

June 15, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sheila K. Oberto United States Magistrate Judge



Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner" or "Defendant") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted, without oral argument, to the Honorable Sheila K. Oberto, United States Magistrate Judge.*fn1


Plaintiff was born in 1956, completed the 12th grade, and previously worked several jobs including cafeteria cook, housekeeper, nurse's aide, and store clerk. (Administrative Record ("AR") 78, 147, 130-41.) Plaintiff also worked as a substitute teacher in Oklahoma. (AR 204-05.) Plaintiff attempted but did not complete some vocational training. (AR 203-04.) On April 11, 2005, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, claiming disability beginning on that date due to back problems. (AR 78-79, 80-83.)

A. Medical Evidence

On April 16, 2003, prior to Plaintiff's alleged onset date of disability of April 11, 2005, Plaintiff was seen by Luis T. Teopengco, M.D. (AR 164-65.) Dr. Teopencgo noted that Plaintiff claimed a ten-year history of low back pain as well as other conditions such as stomach aches, hepatitis C, and high blood pressure. (AR 164.)

On April 23, 2003, Martha A. Wiedman, M.D. interpreted an x-ray of Plaintiff's lumbosacral spine and found that there was "moderate disc space narrowing at L5-S1 with mild spondylosis at L4-5," and determined that Plaintiff has "mild degenerative disc disease" and "mild spondylosis." (AR 163.)

Plaintiff was then examined two years later on June 18, 2005, by Ravinder R. Kurella, M.D. for the State of Oklahoma Disability Determination Division. (AR 169-75.) Dr. Kurella indicated that Plaintiff had a history of hypertension but had stopped taking medication. (AR 169.) Plaintiff complained of pain in her lower back due to an injury when she was 20 years old that had gotten progressively worse. (AR 169.) Plaintiff stated that the pain intensity in her back, rated on a scale from one to ten, ranged from six out of ten to ten out of ten. (AR 169.) Dr. Kurella found that Plaintiff had a "[f]ull range of motion of back and bilateral hip and knee joints," a "full range of motion of shoulder and wrists joints," and that her "gait was normal." (AR 171.)

On July 25, 2005, state agency physician Carmen Bird, M.D. reviewed Plaintiff's records and opined that Plaintiff could carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, could stand and walk about six hours in an eight-hour day, and was unlimited in her ability to push and/or pull. (AR 177.) Dr. Bird noted that Plaintiff reported a history of hepatis C but that there were no treatment records for that condition in her file. (AR 177.) Dr. Bird limited Plaintiff to occasionally stooping but found no other limitations. (AR 178-182.)

Plaintiff was next treated two years later on July 17, 2007, at Community Medical Center. (AR 184.) Plaintiff complained of back pain and right leg pain due to having fallen into a water meter. (AR 184.) Plaintiff's assessment indicated that she could not perform work requiring walking but that "clerical work [was] probably okay." (AR 184.) There was "no restriction of activity [based] on [an] exam of [Plaintiff's] hip [and] back." (AR 184.) Temporary work restrictions were imposed for three months; Plaintiff was limited to not driving, to not doing work requiring climbing ladders or the use of power tools, and to no repetitive bending or lifting. (AR 184.)

Plaintiff returned to Community Medical Center on October 25, 2007, reporting that her leg pain had worsened. (AR 186.) The physician indicated that Plaintiff could return to full-time restricted work with the following limitations: no repetitive lifting or bending and light work only (lifting less than 20 pounds at one time). (AR 186.)

B. Lay Testimony

On April 12, 2005, Plaintiff completed an adult function report. (AR 94-101.) Plaintiff stated that she could no longer lift, bend, or use body movements at different jobs. (AR 95.) Plaintiff injured her back "trying to turn a client" and since that time her back "hurt very bad." (AR 95.) She indicated that she was able to prepare certain meals and that her boyfriend would help her with her laundry because she had "trouble bending." (AR 96.) She did not perform house or yard work because she could not bend. (AR 97.) Plaintiff did not drive because she had "difficulty" seeing and could not "concentrate" long enough to be a "good driver." (AR 97.) She was able to shop for household items. (AR 97.) Plaintiff's hobbies were reading and watching television, and she would spend time with others on the phone and go to church. (AR 98.) Plaintiff indicated that she would have "trouble sitting for too long" and would have to stand up to "keep from hurting." (AR 99.) Plaintiff believed that she was able to do less than a normal person of her age and size. (AR 99.) Plaintiff stated that she had a "short attention span," that she was unable to finish what she started, and that she needed spoken instructions to be repeated twice. (AR 99.)

On May 19, 2005, Plaintiff's friend John Breedlove completed a third-party function report. (AR 102-10.) Mr. Breedlove indicated that he would cook for Plaintiff but that she would do household duties when she could. (AR 102.) Mr. Breedlove noted that Plaintiff would sometimes have to take care of people but did not indicate who those people were. (AR 103.) Mr. Breedlove stated that Plaintiff's "lower back pains surface occasionally when she move[s] [in] a certain way," and that "she cannot get up out of the tub when in a certain position." (AR 103.) Plaintiff needed reminders "not to bend her lower extremities." (AR 104.) Plaintiff was able to prepare food and go shopping for household items, but was unable to do mowing or household repairs. (AR 104-05.) Plaintiff was unable to "reach or bend to pick up things on the lawn." (AR 105.) Mr. Breedlove indicated that Plaintiff's hobbies were reading, watching television, and sewing, and that she did not engage in "sports activities." (AR 106.) Plaintiff was able to speak to her relatives on the phone and would attend church when she could or when she felt like it. (AR 106.) Mr. Breedlove stated that Plaintiff could not stretch or extend her lower back. (AR 107.) Mr. Breedlove further stated that Plaintiff could pay attention for "a long time" and that there was "no problem" with her ability to concentrate. (AR 107.) Plaintiff also handled stress and changes in her routine "very well." (AR 108.)

Plaintiff submitted three letters from other sources. An undated letter from Albert P. indicates that Plaintiff had been complaining about the pain in her leg for the two months that he had known her; he stated that Plaintiff was able to walk for about a block and then had to stop and rest before resuming. (AR 156.) On September 20, 2007, Carla Cole wrote that Plaintiff lived with her in the same house and that Plaintiff had been complaining that her right leg was hurting and bothering her. (AR 157.) In an undated letter from Crossroads 2 Recovery International Ministries, Minister Ireland wrote that Plaintiff was a resident of the ministry and that she suffered from an unknown condition with her right leg. (AR 158.) As a result, Plaintiff was assigned a lower level bunk because of her inability to climb to a higher one; she also needed assistance entering and exiting higher vehicles. (AR 158.) Minister Ireland opined that Plaintiff had a "disabled state." (AR 158.)

C. Administrative Hearing

The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications initially and again on reconsideration; consequently, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR 52-55, 47-49, 45.) On November 30, 2007, ALJ Patricia Flierl held a hearing in which Plaintiff and vocational expert ("VE") Jose Chaparro testified. (AR 196-235.)

1. Plaintiff's Testimony

Plaintiff testified that she was 51 years old on the date of the hearing, married, and had three children over the age of 18 who did not reside with her; another child was deceased. (AR 200.) Plaintiff had completed the 12th grade and had attempted but not completed vocational training. (AR 203-04.) Plaintiff was living in a "board and care home" for approximately three months because she did not have "anywhere else to go." (AR 201.) The eight residents of the home had daily chores that they had to perform; Plaintiff's chore was to do the dishes. (AR 201-02.) However, Plaintiff indicated that she would "just make the water for them" and that each resident would "normally now . . . wash their own dish[es]." (AR 202.) Plaintiff did not have any other chores, but she was responsible for keeping her room clean. (AR 202.) Plaintiff stated that she had a valid Oklahoma driver's license but had not driven in three years due to poor eyesight. (AR 203.)

Plaintiff testified that her last job had been in 2005 in Oklahoma as a substitute teacher for elementary and middle schools. (AR 204.) She worked on an as-needed basis four to five days a week. (AR 205.) Plaintiff stopped working because her son had been killed on November 5, 2006, and she "couldn't deal with it anymore, so [she] just stopped." (AR 206.) Plaintiff then testified that she stopped working in 2005 but was uncertain if she had performed any work after that time; the admitted exhibits indicated that Plaintiff had worked as a substitute teacher's aide from August 2006, through May 2007, which she testified that she had forgotten. (AR 206-07, 209.) She testified that she moved back to California from Oklahoma in March or April of 2007, following the death of her ex-husband. (AR 207, 211.) Plaintiff then admitted that she could not have worked through May 2007, in Oklahoma. (AR 212.) ...

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