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Tina A. Staggs v. Michael J. Astrue

April 6, 2012


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



Plaintiff Tina A. Staggs ("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 July 31, 2008, alleging disability since May 1, 2007, due to bi-polar disorder, "ccms," scoliosis, bunions, back pain, hepatitis C, depression and anxiety. AR 117-124, 134-141. After her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). AR 51, 55, 80-82. ALJ Laura Havens held a hearing on November 19, 2009, and issued a decision denying benefits on February 18, 2010. AR 15-26, 31-48. The Appeals Council denied review on February 23, 2011. AR 1-6.

Hearing Testimony ALJ Havens held a hearing on November 19, 2009, in Stockton, California. Plaintiff appeared with her attorney, Patrick Kelly. Vocational expert ("VE") David Dettmer also appeared and testified. AR 31.

Plaintiff testified that she was born in 1960 and completed the eleventh grade. AR 34. Plaintiff could read the newspaper and perform simple addition and subtraction. AR 35. She lives in a house with her father-in-law and her girlfriend. Plaintiff sometimes needs help getting out of the bathtub and she cleans her bedroom. AR 35-36. She also does laundry, vacuums, uses the microwave and goes grocery shopping. AR 36. She watches television all day. AR 36.

Plaintiff was still taking methadone, which she has been on for two years. AR 37. She has a driver's license and thought that she could drive for about 45 minutes. Plaintiff goes to church once in a while, though she barely goes out at all. AR 37. Plaintiff has a hard time sleeping and is only able to sleep 2 hours at night and 4 hours total. AR 38. She spends most of her time in her room. AR 43.

Plaintiff testified that she was taking Seroquel, Effexor, Lisinopril, methadone, codeine and hydroxyzine. AR 39. Her medications cause dry mouth and sweating. Plaintiff thought that she could stand for about 20 minutes and sit for 30 minutes. She could lift 2 pounds. AR 39.

Plaintiff explained that the pain comes and goes in the region of her right lower back. With medication, she rated her pain at an 8. AR 40. Plaintiff has not yet undergone Interferon therapy for her hepatitis C. Her mental health problems and pain cause difficulties concentrating. AR 41.

When questioned by her attorney, Plaintiff testified that she takes Seroquel for hallucinations, such as thinking someone was talking to her. AR 41. She has been seeing a doctor for years for this problem and when her dosage is right, the medication helps. AR 42.

She explained that she doesn't know what it's like to be happy. AR 42. Plaintiff had a methamphetamine problem years ago but thought her life was back on track. AR 43.

For the first hypothetical, the ALJ asked the VE to assume someone of Plaintiff's age, education and background. This person could sit for 8 hours, stand for 3 hours, walk for 3 hours, and occasionally lift and carry 20 pounds. This person could never climb stairs or ladders and could never crouch, but could occasionally balance, stoop, bend, kneel and crawl. This person must avoid moderate exposure to heights, dust, fumes and gases. The VE responded that the inability to lift any weight frequently was unusual, but that this person could perform the light positions of office helper, with a 50 percent erosion, and cashier, with a 90 percent erosion. AR 44-45. For sedentary positions, this person could perform the position of small parts assembler, with a 75 percent erosion. AR 46. The VE explained that the erosions were based on the inability to lift any weight frequently. AR 46. The deviation from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") was supported by the VE's "30-plus years of rehab counseling." AR 46.

Plaintiff's attorney asked the VE to assume a person who could sit for 5 hours, stand up to 2 hours, and frequently and occasionally lift 10 pounds. This person would be absent from work more than 3times per month. The VE testified that this person could not work. AR 46-47.

Plaintiff's attorney also asked whether light work required the ability to occasionally lift 20 pounds and frequently lift 10 pounds. The VE explained that light work is a combination of lifting, standing and walking and that a person doesn't necessarily have to be capable of lifting up to 10 pounds frequently. While the lifting inability would preclude performance of the full range of light work, it would not eliminate all light jobs. AR 47.

Medical Record Plaintiff began receiving treatment at San Joaquin Behavioral Health in June 2007 for paranoid thoughts and auditory hallucinations. AR 220.

On September 6, 2007, Plaintiff was seen for an assessment after being evaluated in Crisis the night before. Plaintiff reported that she had been on the methadone program for 6 days. She was very anxious, restless and agitated. Plaintiff reported visual and auditory hallucinations and wanted to restart the medication she was taking in prison. AR 219.

Plaintiff returned on September 20, 2007. She was tearful, distracted, fearful and anxious. She was started on Seroquel. AR 218.

On November 16, 2007, Plaintiff stated that she was still anxious, but felt much better and was almost back to her normal self. She was diagnosed with psychosis, not otherwise specified, anxiety, not otherwise specified, and heroin dependence. Plaintiff was prescribed medication. AR 214-215.

Plaintiff was referred to Crisis on December 20, 2007. Her reliability was noted as "fair" and she was very vague in describing her symptoms. Plaintiff could not describe the voices she reported hearing and seemed more focused on "telling her life situation." Plaintiff had a full range of affect and her thoughts were organized. Her memory was grossly intact, though insight and judgment were limited. She received a provisional diagnosis of psychosis, not otherwise specified, and a history of substance abuse. Plaintiff was taking Seroquel and Neurontin, with the goal of decreasing auditory hallucinations. AR 226-228.

On March 14, 2008, Plaintiff reported that she was homeless and living with different relatives. Her affect was restricted and her speech was somewhat loud, but her thought content was organized. She was goal-directed and described herself as "very depressed." Plaintiff also described voices of unclear content. Insight and judgment were grossly intact. Plaintiff was diagnosed with depressive disorder, not otherwise specified and psychosis, not otherwise specified. Both disorders were possibly due to her history of substance dependence. She was instructed to continue her medications. AR 225.

Plaintiff was seen at San Joaquin Behavioral Health on May 15, 2008. She indicated that she needed to see a doctor to get her depression medication started again after incarceration. Plaintiff's mood was anxious and her speech was pressured. Her thoughts were racing, but she denied hallucinations. Her short-memory was impaired. Plaintiff was taking Seroquel, Effexor and Gabapentin. AR 209, 221.

A July 9, 2008, x-ray of Plaintiff's lumbar spine revealed degenerative changes, greatest at the L5-S1 facets. AR 204.

Plaintiff was seen at San Joaquin Behavioral Health on July 11, 2008. She reported some improvement in her depression, but still complained of hearing voices and talking to herself. Plaintiff was sleeping well with her medications. Her response to medications was ...

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