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Whitehead v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 28, 2014

MICHAEL WHITEHEAD, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

CRAIG M. KELLISON, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, who is proceeding with retained counsel, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Pursuant to the written consent of all parties, this case is before the undersigned as the presiding judge for all purposes, including entry of final judgment. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Pending before the court are plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 14) and defendant's opposition (Doc. 17).

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff applied for social security benefits on March 7, 2007. In the application, plaintiff claims that disability began on May 1, 2006. Plaintiff claims that disability is caused by a combination of "degenerative cervical spondylosis, degenerative lumbar spondylosis, and carpal tunnel syndrome." Plaintiff's claim was initially denied. Following denial of reconsideration, and after an administrative hearing, plaintiff's claim was again denied.

On January 5, 2010, the Appeals Council granted review and remanded for further proceedings. In its remand order, the Appeals Council identified the following issues:

1. The hearing decision indicates that the claimant has the severe impairment of carpal tunnel syndrome, but does not contain limitations in the claimant's residual functional capacity that correspond to this impairment;
2. The hearing decision indicates that the claimant has the residual functional capacity for work-related functions that equate to a maximum capability for light work, page 4, but the decision does not contain sufficient rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of the assessed limitations. The hearing decision rejects the opinions of the consultative examiner and the state agency consultant that the claimant is limited to standing and/or walking for at least 2 hours in an 8 hour work day. The hearing decision does not cite any evidence to support the finding that the claimant can stand and/or walk for at least 6 hours in an 8 hour work day; and
3. The decision indicates that, based on vocational expert evidence, the claimant could perform such past relevant work as assembly line worker and label maker operator. However, the vocational expert incorrectly cites the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) code 559.685-018, the code for ampoule filler as past relevant work. This occupation is significantly different from the claimant's past relevant work as assembly line worker.

The Appeals Council provided the following instructions on remand:

1. Obtain evidence from a medical expert to clarify the nature and extent of the claimant's carpal tunnel syndrome impairment;
2. Give further consideration to the claimant's residual functional capacity during the entire period at issue and provide rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of assessed limitations. In so doing, evaluate the treating and nontreating source opinions, including the consultative examiner, Dr. Pliam, and nonexamining source opinions, including the state agency medical consultant (Exhibit 3F), and explain the weight given to such opinion evidence. As appropriate, the Administrative Law Judge may request the treating and nontreating sources to provide additional evidence and/or further clarification of the opinions and medical source statements about what the claimant can still do despite the impairments. The Administrative Law Judge may enlist the aid and cooperation of the claimant's representative in developing evidence from the claimant's treating sources; and
3. Obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on the claimant's occupational base. The hypothetical questions should reflect the specific capacity/limitations established by the record as a whole. The Administrative Law Judge will ask the vocational expert to identify examples of appropriate jobs and to state the incidence of such jobs in the national economy. Further, before relying on the vocational expert evidence, the Administrative Law Judge will identify and resolve any conflicts between the occupational evidence provided by the vocational expert and information in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) and its companion publication, the Selected Characteristics of Occupations.

A second administrative hearing was held on May 24, 2010, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Jean R. Kerins. In a November 20, 2011, decision, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled based on the following relevant findings:

1. The claimant has the following severe impairment(s): degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spines status post cervical fusion and lumbar diskectomy;
2. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in the regulations;
3. The claimant has the following residual functional capacity: claimant can perform less than a full range of light work; the claimant has the ability to lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; he can stand and/or walk for at least 2 hours in an 8-hour workday; he can sit for at least 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; the claimant is able to climb ramps and stairs occasionally, but is never able to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; the claimant is able to balance, kneel, stoop, crouch, and crawl occasionally, but is never able to reach overhead, bilaterally; and
4. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, residual functional capacity, and vocational expert testimony there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the ...

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