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Brenda G. Robinson v. Michael J. Astrue

October 6, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Suzanne H. Segal United States Magistrate Judge




Brenda G. Robinson ("Plaintiff") brings this action seeking to overturn the decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (hereinafter the "Commissioner" or the "Agency") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). The parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.



Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on August 21, 2006 and DIB on August 28, 2006. (Administrative Record ("AR") 121-133). She alleged a disability onset date of December 31, 2002 (AR 121), due to "[b]ad back, scoliosis, back spasms, bone deterioration [and] arthritis." (AR 144). Plaintiff subsequently amended her disability onset date to November 1, 2004. (AR 160). The Agency initially denied this claim on January 5, 2007. (AR 70).

Plaintiff's claim was reconsidered, and subsequently denied by the Agency on March 30, 2007. (AR 79). Plaintiff then requested a hearing (AR 86), which was held on May 21, 2008 before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR 98). Plaintiff testified at the hearing while represented by an attorney. (AR 27). On October 22, 2008, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. (AR 18-26).

Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ decision was denied by the Appeals Council on September 3, 2010, (AR 1), making the ALJ decision the final decision of the Agency. On October 27, 2010, Plaintiff commenced the instant action.



Plaintiff was born on February 18, 1953. (AR 121). Prior to her alleged disability onset date, Plaintiff worked a variety of jobs including: home attendant; cafeteria server; retail sales clerk; child monitor; and companion/caregiver. (AR 221). On July 21, 2003, a different ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing light work (AR 180), but she failed to prosecute her appeal on that determination.

A. Plaintiff's Medical History

On February 14, 2001, Dr. Frank W. Cunningham diagnosed Plaintiff with "chronic ten-year episodic low back pain, present status low back pain radiculitis, but no radicululopathy." (AR 176). On October 29, 2001, she began taking Albuterol for asthma treatment. (Id.). Afterwards, Plaintiff made frequent and continuous visits to the AltaMed Community Health Clinic ("AltaMed"). (AR 226-369, 405-20, 426-28). While the majority of these visits were for prescription refills, there were numerous occasions in which Plaintiff sought treatment for her alleged disabilities, consisting of lower back pain, leg pain, and respiratory issues. (Id.).

On January 17, 2002, Plaintiff visited AltaMed because she felt back and hip pain. (AR 294). An x-ray of the right hip revealed "no evidence of fracture or dislocation. No significant degenerative or destructive changes [were] identified." (AR 342). Instead, the evidence showed "mild degenerative changes . . . [o]steopenia." (Id.). Similarly, an x-ray of Plaintiff's lumbar spine showed only "mild disc space narrowing" and "lumbar scoliosis with convexity to the right." (Id.).

Plaintiff returned to AltaMed on March 22, 2002 with pain in her right leg. (AR 287). However, an x-ray showed no "evidence of fracture or dislocation. Moreover, no significant degenerative or destructive changes [were] identified." (AR 341). On April 12, 2002, Plaintiff visited AltaMed complaining of a cough. (AR 286). The treating physician expressed concern for Plaintiff's smoking and prescribed "Bupropion HCI" for smoking cessation. (Id.). On August 10, 2002, Plaintiff expressed concern for a new pain in the back of her neck. (AR 282). An x-ray did not reveal a "fracture, dislocation, or significant degenerative change," but there was "evidence of straightening of the cervical spine most consistent with muscle spasm." (AR 340).

On November 19, 2002, Plaintiff went to AltaMed for a full checkup. (AR 337). An x-ray of her chest showed that the heart was normal and free of a "cardiopulmonary disease event." (Id.). On January 13, 2002, Plaintiff returned to AltaMed complaining of pain in her right hand that had lingered for six days. (AR 269). The x-ray returned "satisfactory," without signs of degeneration or other serious issues. (AR 336).

Over the next few years, Plaintiff returned to AltaMed primarily to refill her prescriptions. (AR 228-68). During most prescription appointments, Plaintiff expressed continued pain in her lower back and right leg. (Id.). However, none of her x-rays revealed significant degeneration of muscles or bones, nor were there any signs of respiratory issues. (AR 331-42). Moreover, Plaintiff's routine checks (i.e., cancer, cholesterol, diabetes) also failed to indicate significant health issues. (AR 297-330). Medical records from January 5, 2007 to April 10, 2008 reflect Plaintiff's consistent pattern of returning to AltaMed with complaints. However, no serious issues were ever discovered. (AR 405-20, 426-28).

In addition to AltaMed, Plaintiff went to Pomona Valley Hospital for "chest pressure" with "some left arm tingling and leg swelling" on December 14, 2004. (AR 433). When her tests returned normal, the treating physician gave her Vicodin and Motrin for the pain. (Id.). On October 20, 2006, Plaintiff went to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center for stomach pains. (AR 371). Tests revealed a gastric ulcer without signs of a tumor. (AR 372). From April 30, 2007 to May 2, 2007, Plaintiff was hospitalized again at Pomona Valley Hospital for headaches and nausea. (AR 391). An emergency CAT scan was negative, and Plaintiff was given medication for her pain before being discharged. (Id.). On February 9, 2009, Plaintiff was readmitted to Pomona Valley Hospital complaining of "shortness of breath, asthma exacerbation, peptic ulcer disease, headache, and COPD." (AR 513). Tests revealed that Plaintiff suffered from pnuemonia and influenzia. (Id.). Dr. Amit Paliwal recommended that she stop smoking. However, Plaintiff did not comply. (AR 519).

B. Examining Sources

On November 1, 2006, Dr. Bryan To conducted an independent internal medicine evaluation of Plaintiff. (AR 375). According to Dr. To, Plaintiff's "back pain elicits some minor findings of nerve root irritation. Straight-leg raise was positive. [Plaintiff's] range of motion was decreased." (AR 377). However, Dr. To found "no evidence of deformities, swelling, or tenderness" of Plaintiff's joints despite Plaintiff's complaints of pain throughout the exam. (Id.). Moreover, Dr. To found no evidence of respiratory distress. (Id.). Dr. To concluded that Plaintiff could frequently carry up to ten pounds and occasionally carry up to twenty pounds. (Id.). Further, Dr. To concluded that Plaintiff could stand and walk for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday and that there were no restrictions on how long Plaintiff could be seated during an eight-hour work day. (AR 378). Dr. To also opined that Plaintiff could occasionally walk on uneven terrain, climb ladders, and work with heights. (Id.). Additionally, he found that Plaintiff could bend, kneel, stoop, crawl, and crouch occasionally. (Id.).

On April 10, 2008, one of Plaintiff's treating physicians, Dr. Christian Rico, submitted a residual functional capacity ("RFC") questionnaire based on his monthly interactions with Plaintiff, which began in April 2003. (AR 422). Dr. Rico opined that Plaintiff could occasionally lift up to ten pounds, rarely lift up to twenty pounds, and never lift more than 50 pounds. (AR 424). Further, Dr. Rico found that Plaintiff could stand and walk less than two hours out of an eight-hour work day with normal breaks and sit for up to four hours out of an eight-hour work day with normal breaks. (Id.).

Dr. Rico opined that emotional factors do not contribute to the severity of Plaintiff's symptoms, but also checked off "depression" and "anxiety" as "psychological conditions affecting her physical condition." (AR 423). However, he did not cite any psychological tests or treatment. Additionally, Dr. Rico listed shortness of breath related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as a limiting factor, but asserted that Plaintiff's "impairment is mostly with her back pain." (AR 425).

C. Consultative Sources

On November 20, 2006, consulting physician B. X. Vaghaiwalla submitted a physical residual functional capacity assessment based on the evidence in Plaintiff's file. (AR 380). According to Dr. Vaghaiwalla, Plaintiff could occasionally lift or carry up to twenty pounds, and frequently lift or carry up to ten pounds. (AR 381). Further, Dr. Vaghaiwalla found that Plaintiff could stand and walk for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday and sit up to six hours in an eight-hour workday. (Id.). Dr. Vaghaiwalla also concluded that Plaintiff could occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. (AR 382). However, Dr. Vaghaiwalla opined ...

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