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Armando Torres Garcia v. Michael J. Astrue

March 12, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Barbara A. McAuliffe United States Magistrate Judge



Plaintiff Armando Garcia ("Plaintiff") seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") denying his application for supplemental security income benefits 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 Magistrate Judge Barbara A. McAuliffe.


On January 9, 2009, Plaintiff filed his first application for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI, of the Social Security Act (the Act). AR 18. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). AR 64. ALJ Judson Scott held a video hearing and issued an order denying benefits on July 18, 2011, finding Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 18-25.

Hearing Testimony

ALJ Scott held a hearing on June 22, 2011 in San Francisco, California. AR 18. Plaintiff appeared and testified in Bakersfield, California. Plaintiff was represented by attorney Sylvia Lopez and assisted by an interpreter. AR 18. Vocational Expert ("VE") Lawrence S. Hughes and Medical Experts Shakil Mohammed, M.D., Ph. D, and Eric Puestow, M.D. also testified. AR 18.

Plaintiff is an unemployed fifty-six year old. He is morbidly obese and suffers from poorly controlled hypertension, sleep apnea, and vision problems. Plaintiff is also a recovering alcoholic but had his last drink in 2003. AR 367-68. At the hearing, Plaintiff stated that he has little to no education but can read and write somewhat in Spanish. AR 371. Plaintiff last worked in 2004, but he stopped working due to problems with his high blood pressure. AR 369.

When asked about his impairments, Plaintiff said he gets headaches caused by his hypertension. AR 370. To help alleviate his high blood pressure, Plaintiff takes medication daily with little success. AR 370. His doctors have advised him that in order to improve his blood pressure he should try to walk more, but Plaintiff admitted that he walks infrequently because it makes him tired. AR 370-71. Plaintiff also said his left knee bothered him but that he has had no additional x-rays taken. AR 372-73. He saw his physician for sleep apnea, and his physician referred him for a sleep study. AR 374-76. During the sleep study, Plaintiff slept easily with a Bipap mask. However, Plaintiff testified that he does not use a machine to help him sleep, and that his physician told him he needed to lose weight to help with this problem. AR 376. Plaintiff said he tried to lose weight and had begun dieting but was having difficulty and had recently gained five pounds. AR 370, 376-77.

Plaintiff's medical experts, internist and endocrinologist, Eric Puestow, M.D. and psychiatrist Shakil Mohammed, M.D., Ph. D., also testified. AR 380-395

Dr. Puestow testified that he reviewed Plaintiff's records and noted that he considered Plaintiff's history of uncontrollable high blood pressure but did not see any organ damage. AR 381. He opined that Plaintiff's high blood pressure could cause headaches, but it was controllable with medication and a proper diet, and did not affect Plaintiff's ability to work. AR 381, 383-84. Dr. Puestow also noted that Plaintiff was morbidly obese and had a history of alcoholism but that he had been sober for eight years. AR 381-82. He said that, although Plaintiff alleged he had Valley Fever, he found no supporting documentation in the record. AR 382. Dr. Puestow opined that Plaintiff had some mild non-obstructive coronary disease, which would not cause any symptoms or functional limitations, and that Plaintiff's chest pain and shortness of breath could not be explained on this basis. AR 168, 382. He also found that Plaintiff had some mild degenerative disease of the thoracic and lumbar spine, normal for an individual of Plaintiff's age, which might cause local discomfort but would not carry any significant functional limitations. AR 383. With respect to Plaintiff's arthritis, Dr. Puestow did not find any documented joint pathology, and he opined that Plaintiff's knee should resolve itself with time and conservative treatment. AR 383. Overall, Dr. Puestow opined that Plaintiff could lift more than 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, occasionally climb, bend, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but should not have concentrated exposure to hazards on the job. AR 387-88.

Psychiatrist, Shakil Mohammed, M.D., Ph.D., also testified at Plaintiff's hearing. AR 42-44, 390. Dr. Mohammed testified that Plaintiff is not suffering from any psychiatric impairment. AR 391. He noted that there were no mental health documents of any kind in the record and that Plaintiff stated he did not suffer from any mental problems, had never been hospitalized for mental illness, and was not taking any psychiatric medications. AR 256, 390-91.

Thereafter, the ALJ elicited the testimony of vocational expert Hughes. AR 394. The VE classified Plaintiff's past work as an auto mechanic as medium, skilled work (specific vocational preparation (SVP) of 7). AR 366, 394. VE Hughes was asked to consider a hypothetical worker of Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience who is capable of performing medium work; was limited to occasional postural activities; could not perform tasks requiring very fine detailed work or constant close work; could perform simple, repetitive, one to two step tasks due to education; could have frequent contact with co-workers and supervisors, and occasional contact with the public in Spanish; could only perform jobs with limited reading and writing; and was limited to low stress jobs, defined as those with few changes in the work setting with few decisions required. AR 395. VE Hughes testified that this individual could not perform Plaintiff's past work because the skill level and visual requirements from his past job were too high. AR 395.

However, VE Hughes testified that this individual could work in the other representative occupations of laundry worker, vehicle cleaner, and food preparation worker. AR 395-97. VE Hughes further explained that the job of a laundry worker is often a sit/stand position, and that even if the additional limitation to avoid hazards, as defined by Dr. Puestow, were added to the hypothetical question, this individual could still perform all three jobs. AR 399, 402.

Medical Record

The entire medical record was reviewed by the Court. AR 64-364. The medical evidence will be referenced below as necessary to this Court's decision.

ALJ's Findings

Using the Social Security Administration's five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not meet the disability standard. AR 18-25.

More particularly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his application date of January 9, 2009. AR 18. Further, the ALJ identified several severe physical impairments including poorly controlled hypertension, morbid obesity, obstructive sleep apnea, episodic dizziness, alcohol abuse and alcoholism in sustained remission, pre-patellar bursitis of the left knee, and reduced bilateral visual acuity. Nonetheless, the ALJ ...

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