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Mona Spillane v. Michael J. Astrue

September 11, 2012



Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"). For the reasons discussed below, the court denies plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, grants the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and directs the Clerk to enter judgment for defendant and close the case.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff, Mona Spillane a/k/a Mona Rashid, born on March 9, 1975, filed an application for DIB on February 6, 2006, alleging that she had been disabled since May 11, 2003. Administrative Record ("AR") at 17, 55-56, 92. Plaintiff's application was initially denied on July 16, 2006 and upon reconsideration on November 17, 2006. ARat 55-56. On July 23, 2008, a hearing was held before administrative law judge ("ALJ") David R. Mazzi. AR at 26-54.

Plaintiff, who was represented by attorney Phyllis Matyi, as well as a vocational expert ("VE"), Stephen Davis, testified at the hearing. Id.

On December 17, 2008, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled for purposes of the Act.*fn1 AR at 17-25. The ALJ made the following specific findings (citations to the Code of Federal Regulations omitted):

1. The claimant filed an application on February 6, 2006 for disability benefits under Title II of the Act.

2. The claimant met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act as of and remained insured for disability benefit purposes through June 30, 2006.

3. There is no evidence that the claimant engaged in any substantial gainful activity since May 11, 2003.

4. The medical evidence establishes that the claimant has the following severe impairments: myofascial pain syndrome, depression, and anxiety.

5. The medically established disorders are not attended by clinical and laboratory findings that meet or equal the criteria of any section of the Listing of Impairments at 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 for twelve months.

6. The claimant retains the residual functional capacity to perform at least sedentary work, as defined at 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a), with the need for a sit or stand option every ten minutes. Even assuming that the affective disorder is severe, she retains the ability to perform at least simple, repetitive tasks equating with unskilled work.

7. The claimant is capable of performing her past relevant work.

8. The claimant's vocational profile and residual functional capacity coincide with rules under The Medical-Vocational Guidelines of 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Appendix 2 that, when used as a framework for decisionmaking, establish that she remains able to perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the economy and direct a finding of "not disabled."

9. The claimant is not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act at any time through the date of this decision.

AR at 19-24.

Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. AR at 12-13. However, on February 15, 2011, the Appeals Council denied review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the "final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security." AR at 1-5.

II. Standard of Review

The Commissioner's decision that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld if the findings

of fact are supported by substantial evidence in the record and the proper legal standards were applied. Schneider v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F.3d 968, 973 (9th Cir. 2000); Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999).

The findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. See Miller v. Heckler, 770 F.2d 845, 847 (9th Cir. 1985). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 521 (9th Cir. 1996). "'It means such 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. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).

"The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities." Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted). "Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

III. Analysis

Before addressing the specific issues raised by plaintiff,*fn2 a broad summary of plaintiff's medical history is appropriate.*fn3 Plaintiff's date last insured ("DLI") for purposes of DIB is June 30, 2006.

Medical Evidence Pre-Dating Plaintiff's DLI

On July 22, 2003, at a pain management consultation with Dr. James Lee, Dr. Lee stated that plaintiff had a 2.5 year history of low back/neck pain with radiation to the left arm and leg at a 10/10 intensity. AR at 175. He noted that plaintiff did not find relief with trigger point injections, chiropractic care, TENS,*fn4 or medication. AR at 175. Dr. Lee observed that plaintiff had been worked up extensively, but that she had essentially normal lumbar and cervical MRIs. AR at 175. Neurology felt that her symptoms were consistent with cervical and lumbar radiculitis and cervical myofascial pain.*fn5 AR at 175. On physical examination, plaintiff had normal gait and full range of motion, but experienced pain. AR at 175-76. Dr. Lee diagnosed plaintiff with cervical and lumbar radiculopathy, noted that plaintiff was unwilling to repeat injections, and recommended a trial of Neurontin and acupuncture. AR at 176. On September 11, 2003, plaintiff complained of similar pain during a visit to the 45th Street Clinic, and the doctor noted that plaintiff was a graduate student and that the onset of pain seems to have been due to stress. AR at 299.

Subsequently, on October 27, 2003, Dr. Michael Eschleman described plaintiff as a "healthy appearing woman" who ambulates without a limp or pain. AR at 365. At the time, plaintiff reported chronic neck and back pain with fatigue, but stated that she was essentially able to do all of her normal activities in spite of symptoms, including yoga and working out on a treadmill. AR at 365. Dr. Eschleman diagnosed her with brachial plexus lesions, low back pain, and somatic dysfunction, and instructed plaintiff to perform home exercises. AR at 366. At a November 17, 2003 visit, Dr. Eschleman noted significant symptomatic and objective improvement and encouraged plaintiff to continue with the home exercises. AR at 363-64. On December 10, 2003, he again noted significant symptomatic and objective improvement and referred plaintiff for physical therapy and massage in addition to home exercises. AR at 362-63. When plaintiff requested prescription medication on February 2, 2004, Dr. Eschleman stated that he would prescribe Vicodin for a defined time of about 2-3 weeks, but indicated that narcotic medications were not recommended for chronic problems and that he anticipated plaintiff's therapy to manage plaintiff's symptoms. AR at 360. Plaintiff again saw Dr. Eschleman on March 8, 2004. AR at 358-59. At that time, he again noted significant objective improvement, but that plaintiff ...

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