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Robert E. Spring v. Michael J. Astrue

March 26, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Patrick J. Walsh United States Magistrate Judge



Before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal of a decision by Defendant Social Security Administration ("the Agency"), denying his application for Disability Insurance benefits ("DIB"). Plaintiff claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred when he found that Plaintiff was not credible and when he rejected the opinions of a treating and an examining doctor. For the reasons explained below, the Court concludes that the ALJ erred and remands the case to the Agency for further consideration.


On December 13, 2005, Plaintiff applied for DIB, claiming that he had been unable to work since October 27, 2004, due to a heart attack, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and arterial stenosis. (Administrative Record ("AR") 147, 174.) The Agency denied the application initially and on reconsideration. (AR 35-36, 48-58.) Plaintiff then requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ. (AR 60-62.) On March 25, 2008, Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at the hearing. (AR 796-827.) On April 25, 2008, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. (AR 37-45.)

Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which remanded the case to the ALJ with instructions to clarify his treatment of the treating and examining physicians' opinions and his finding that Plaintiff was not credible. (AR 82-85.) On November 10, 2009, the ALJ held a second hearing. (AR 26-34.) At the outset of the hearing, Plaintiff's counsel requested that Plaintiff's claim be amended to seek disability benefits for a closed period from October 27, 2004 to September 1, 2008, due to the fact that Plaintiff had returned to the work force. (AR 29.) On January 6, 2010, the ALJ issued a second decision, again denying Plaintiff's application for benefits. (AR 10-20.) Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied review. (AR 1-9.) He then commenced this action.


1. The ALJ's Credibility Evaluation Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's credibility determination is not supported by substantial evidence. (Joint Stip. at 18-20.) For the following reasons, the Court agrees.

ALJs are tasked with judging the credibility of witnesses. In making these determinations, they may employ ordinary credibility evaluation techniques. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1284 (9th Cir. 1996). Where a claimant has produced objective medical evidence of an impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms alleged and there is no evidence of malingering, the ALJ can only reject the claimant's testimony for specific, clear, and convincing reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Id. at 1283-84; Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir. 2002).

Plaintiff testified at the first hearing in March 2008 that he was unable to work for more than three or four hours a day because of aches and pain. (AR 802.) He testified that the pain was particularly bad in his hands, shoulders, and feet. (AR 813.) He also testified that he thought that some of the medication he was taking---amounting to 25 to 30 pills a day--might be making his symptoms worse. (AR 802, 813-14.) Plaintiff explained that his back hurt if he sat too long and that his shoulders and feet hurt if he stood for more than an hour. (AR 816.) He explained that, on a good day, it took him an hour to get out of bed and, on a bad day, it took him two hours. (AR 818.) In a written statement submitted with his disability application, Plaintiff noted that he experienced swelling in his hands, legs, and feet and that he often fell asleep when he sat down to work on his computer or to read a book. (AR 182.) He also complained that he had trouble walking a block or more because his whole body hurt and he had trouble breathing. (AR 191.)

The ALJ found that there was no objective evidence to support Plaintiff's claimed limitations. (AR 18-19.) He noted, for example, that Plaintiff's claims of an inflammatory condition were not supported by evidence of swelling in the joints, arms, or legs. (AR 19.) He also pointed out that Plaintiff's "motion remained intact," his pain responded to treatment, and his activities were "self limited." (AR 19.) He noted that Plaintiff's uric acid levels were no higher than normal for more than 12 months and that there was no nerve root impingement. (AR 19.)

The record does not seem to support any of these findings. Dr. Glen Smith, Plaintiff's treating physician, noted swelling in Plaintiff's hands, legs, and feet on a number of occasions. (AR 318 (hand); 322 (legs/feet), 453 (hands).) So did Dr. Robert Steinberg, who examined Plaintiff in December 2007. (AR 444 (noting edema in joints).) Dr. Steinberg also observed that Plaintiff's range of motion was diminished in his shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands, hips, knees, ankles, and toes. (AR 444-46.) Rheumatologist Joo-Hyung Lee noted that Plaintiff's pain was "suggestive of an inflammatory arthritis," though Plaintiff did not exhibit any swelling on the day Dr. Lee examined him. (AR 272.)

The ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's pain responded to treatment is a one-sided interpretation of the evidence. Although Plaintiff testified that, if he did not take pain pills, he found it hard to function, he also testified that the pain "just continues to get worse." (AR 814.) Clearly, the pills afforded him some relief, but, nevertheless, he repeatedly emphasized that he continued to experience pain, so much so that, at times, he felt "like somebody [was] taking a nail through me." (AR 33, 816-17.) Likewise, the ALJ did not set forth a basis for his finding that Plaintiff's activities were "self limited." (AR 19.) Thus, the Court cannot evaluate that finding, either.

As to Plaintiff's uric acid levels, the ALJ did not explain what impact they had on Plaintiff's condition and how the absence of high uric acid levels for 12 months undermined Plaintiff's testimony regarding his symptoms. Thus, the Court is not able to evaluate the ALJ's finding regarding the uric acid level. Further, because the ALJ had already found that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause his alleged symptoms ...

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