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Janice Knapp v. Michael J. Astrue

May 10, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jennifer L. Thurston United States Magistrate Judge


Janice Knapp ("Plaintiff") asserts she is entitled to supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff argues the administrative law judge ("ALJ") improperly evaluated the opinion of a treating physician, failed to find her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was a severe impairment, and erred in assessing her credibility. Therefore, Plaintiff seeks review of the administrative decision denying her claim for benefits. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED and the matter is REMANDED for further proceedings.


Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income on January 31, 2007, alleging disability beginning September 30, 2005. AR at 107. The Social Security Administration denied her claim initially and upon reconsideration. Id. at 68-81. After requesting a hearing, Plaintiff testified 2 before an ALJ on March 6, 2009. Id. at 25-55. The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled, and 3 issued an order denying benefits on June 16, 2009. Id. at 16-22. Plaintiff requested review of the 4 ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council of Social Security, which was denied on December 13, 2010.

Id. at 1-4. Therefore, the ALJ's determination became the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner").


District courts have a limited scope of judicial review for disability claims after a decision by 9 the Commissioner to deny benefits under the Social Security Act. When reviewing findings of fact, such as whether a claimant was disabled, the Court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The ALJ's determination that the claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court if the proper legal standards were applied and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. See Sanchez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 812 F.2d 509, 510 (9th Cir. 1987).

Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197 (1938). The record as a whole must be considered, because "[t]he court must consider both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion." Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985).


To qualify for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual shall be considered to have a disability only if: physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The burden of proof is on a claimant to establish disability. Terry v. 4 Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1273, 1275 (9th Cir. 1990). When a claimant establishes a prima facie case of 5 disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove the claimant is able to engage in other 6 substantial gainful employment. Maounis v. Heckler, 738 F.2d 1032, 1034 (9th Cir. 1984). 7


To achieve uniform decisions, the Commissioner established a sequential five-step process for 9 evaluating a claimant's alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920 (a)-(f). The process requires the ALJ to determine whether Plaintiff (1) engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of alleged disability, (2) had medically determinable severe impairments (3) that met or equaled one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and whether Plaintiff (4) had the residual functional capacity to perform to past relevant work or (5) the ability to perform other work existing in significant numbers at the state and national level. Id. In making these determinations, the ALJ must consider objective medical evidence and opinion (hearing) testimony. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927.

A. Relevant Medical Evidence

On March 24, 2005, Dr. Todd Spencer noted Plaintiff "presents with chronic low back and radicular pain." AR at 247. Plaintiff underwent a CT scan of her lumbar spine, which Dr. Spencer opined showed "multilevel degenerative changes." Id. In addition, Dr. Spencer found "some mild central spinal stenosis and lateral recessed stenosis at L5-S1." Id.

In January and February 2006, Plaintiff was treated at Dr. Youseef Hadweh's office for leg pain, swelling in both legs, and shortness of breath. AR at 183-84. Plaintiff was diagnosed with peripheral edema and bronchitis. Id. Although Plaintiff continued to complain of body aches and shortness of breath in April 2006, and she was given a nebulizer unit. Id. at 181-82. On April 21, 2006, her bronchitis was "much improved." Id. at 181.

Plaintiff reported that she continued to suffer pain in June and July of 2006, and the dosage of her prescribed Vicodin was increased. AR at 179-80. In addition, Plaintiff's breathing was "worse," and she reported poor sleep. Id. at 179. She was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and was to continue use of the nebulizer. Id. On September 8, 2006, Plaintiff was 2 diagnosed with poor control over diabetes mellitus, and was prescribed insulin. Id. at 174. 3

Throughout the remainder of 2006, Plaintiff reported pain in various parts of her body, including her 4 elbows, the left side of her neck, right elbow, knee, and hip. See id. at 167-77. 5

On January 24, 2007, Plaintiff visited her physician and reported that she "wants to quit 6 smoking," and requested a nicotine patch. AR at 166. However, in April 2007, Plaintiff reported she 7 again had shortness of breath, and examination revealed diffuse breathing sounds. Id. at 246. Plaintiff 8 was diagnosed with bronchitis, and again told to use the nebulizer. Id.; see also id. at 211. 9

Dr. Martin completed a consultative physical examination on May 26, 2007. AR at 191-93. Plaintiff told Dr. Martin she had been treated for asthma for several years. Id. at 191. Plaintiff reported she had "used inhalers in the past but ‗they did not work,'" so she used a home "nebulizer several times a day." Id. Plaintiff said she had been diagnosed with diabetes mellitus "for about three years," and had required the use of insulin for about the last year. Id. She said she smoked a pack of cigarettes "every day and a half." Id. Dr. Martin noted Plaintiff used a cane and walked with a limp but had "[n]o obvious difficulty getting off/on the examination table or moving about." Id. However, she "was not able to walk on [her] heels or toes." Id. at 192. Dr. Martin opined Plaintiff's level of cooperation with the musculoskeletal examination "was unclear" because her "[f]ormal movements were noted to proceed much more slowly and less smoothly ...

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