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Sheila Marie Chesnes v. Michael J. Astrue

September 24, 2011

SHEILA MARIE CHESNES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Patrick J. Walsh United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff appeals the decision of Defendant Social Security Administration ("the Agency"), denying her applications for Disability Insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). She claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in finding that she was not credible. (Joint Stip. at 3-12.) For the reasons explained below, the Agency's decision is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

II. SUMMARY OF PROCEEDINGS Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on November 8, 2007, alleging that she had been unable to work since December 30, 2006, because of fibromyalgia, migraines, severe tendon problems, and vision problems.

(Administrative Record ("AR") 102-07, 111, 115.) The Agency denied her application initially and on reconsideration. (AR 68-77, 83-87.) She then requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ. (AR 89-91.) Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at the hearing on July 1, 2009. (AR 41-67.) The ALJ subsequently issued a decision denying benefits. (AR 11-24.) Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied review. (AR 1-7.) She then commenced the instant action.

III. ANALYSIS

The ALJ found that Plaintiff's testimony that she was severely impaired was not credible. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's reasons for this finding were not clear and convincing and were not supported by substantial evidence in the record. (Joint Stip. at 4-12.) For the following reasons, the Court agrees.

ALJs are tasked with judging the credibility of the witnesses. In making credibility determinations, they employ ordinary credibility evaluation techniques. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1284 (9th Cir. 1996). Where a claimant has produced objective medical evidence of an impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged symptoms and there is no evidence of malingering, the ALJ can only reject the claimant's testimony for specific, clear, and convincing reasons, id. at 1283-84, that are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir. 2002).

The ALJ found that Plaintiff's obesity, fibromyalgia, migraines, and tendonitis were severe impairments. (AR 17.) She concluded that these impairments could reasonably be expected to produce Plaintiff's alleged symptoms and did not find that Plaintiff was malingering, but determined that her statements concerning her symptoms were "not entirely credible." (AR 20.) The ALJ cited four reasons for questioning Plaintiff's credibility: (1) Plaintiff exaggerated her claims of depression; (2) she regularly engaged in physical activities that were inconsistent with her claimed limitations; (3) the intensity of her alleged physical pain was inconsistent with the objective medical evidence; and (4) her headache claims were exaggerated. (AR 20-21.) The Court addresses each one in turn.

The ALJ rejected Plaintiff's testimony because she had not undergone any treatment to address her alleged depression and the consulting psychiatrist found that she was not limited as a result of her depression. (AR 20.) Plaintiff argues that this was not a valid reason to question her testimony because she never claimed that she was impaired due to depression. For the reasons explained below, the Court agrees.

Plaintiff never claimed that she was unable to work because she was depressed. (AR 50, 128, 138.) She complained mostly about physical ailments that caused severe pain and prevented her from working, though she noted that, beginning in 2006, she began experiencing panic attacks, which made it hard for her to cope. (AR 47-48, 128.) Though she testified at the administrative hearing that she cried a lot, she never claimed that that was the reason she could not work. (AR 49.) When she went to the consultative psychological examination, she told Dr. Stephan Simonian that she was depressed, and he agreed, diagnosing her with depression. (AR 198, 201.) But Plaintiff never added depression to her list of claimed impairments.

Thus, the Court is at a loss to understand why Plaintiff's failure to seek treatment for depression establishes that she was lying when she claimed that her physical ailments prevented her from working. It appears that Plaintiff may not have even recognized that she was suffering from depression until she was in the midst of the application process. As such, the Court finds that her failure to seek treatment is not a convincing reason for doubting her testimony.

The second reason the ALJ relied on for discounting Plaintiff's testimony was that her daily activities--including taking walks, preparing meals, and doing housework--were inconsistent with her claimed level of impairment. (AR 21.) The record does not fully support this finding.

A claimant's ability to perform daily activities may be grounds for an adverse credibility finding where the ability to perform these activities is inconsistent with the claimant's testimony or where the claimant is able to "spend a substantial part of [her] day engaged in pursuits involving the performance of physical functions that are transferable to a work setting." Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 639 (9th Cir. 2007) (quotation omitted). The fact that a claimant can perform a limited range of chores, however, does not mean that she can work or that she is lying when she claims that she ...


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