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Johnson v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California

July 2, 2014



CHARLES R. BREYER, District Judge.

Plaintiff Catherine Johnson appeals the denial of her application for social security benefits. Johnson and Defendant Carolyn Colvin, acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), have filed motions for summary judgment. The administrative record contains substantial evidence that supports the Commissioner's decision. Accordingly, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and GRANTS Defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment.


A. Procedural History

Johnson filed applications for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("SSDI") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on March 2, 2009, alleging disability beginning on January 7, 2007. Administrative Record ("AR") (dkt. 11) at 158, 165. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied the applications initially and upon reconsideration. Id. at 66, 71. Johnson then requested a hearing with an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). Id. at 76. Johnson, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert ("VE") testified at the hearing. Id. at 37. After the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding Johnson not disabled, and Johnson timely requested a review. Id. at 14-34. The Appeals Council considered Johnson's reasons for disagreeing with the ALJ's decision, along with the additional evidence of Johnson's electromyogram ("EMG") submitted by Johnson's attorney, and denied the request for review. Id. at 1-6. Thus, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 1. Johnson seeks reversal of the final order or, in the alternative, remand for further proceedings. Pl.'s Mot. For Summ. J. ("P MSJ") (dkt. 17) at 19.

B. Factual Background

1. Johnson's Disability Claim

Johnson alleges disability beginning January 7, 2007, claiming multiple impairments that prevent her from working. See generally AR at 190-220. Her alleged impairments include numbness in her arms, legs, and lower back; pain in her knee, hip, and lower back; and depression, inability to sleep, mood swings, and cancer. See id.

2. Administrative Hearing Testimony

At the hearing, the ALJ first reported the impairments that he gleaned from the record, including degenerative disc disease in Johnson's back, arthritis in her knees, "some depression and some cognitive disorders or thought processes, " and past alcohol dependence. Id. at 43. Johnson added that she had experienced back pain for the last three years at a ten-out-of-ten level - ten being "agony, " and one being "no pain or almost no pain" - for five days out of the week. Id. at 44. Johnson alleged numbness in her arms and pain in her neck and knees, although she stated that recent injections had helped her knee pain. Id. at 44, 46. Johnson testified that she last worked "dusting in stores for construction jobs" and, prior to that, as a sandwich maker. Id. at 42-43. When questioned about her physical abilities, Johnson responded that she could walk about one-and-a-half blocks without assistance, stand for about twenty minutes before having to sit, sit for about thirty minutes before having to stand, and "[lift] maybe ten pounds." Id. at 49. She also testified to attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings about three times a week, using public transportation, watching television, performing chores, and preparing her own meals. Id. at 50-52.

In addition, the ALJ questioned Johnson concerning her mental issues. Johnson stated that, at the time of the hearing, she took Zoloft and Zestril for her mental disorders. Id. at 46. She further testified that she lacked "any control over her sadness." Id. at 47. The ALJ also asked Johnson about her past substance abuse, and Johnson denied any recent use of "Meth" or consumption of alcohol. Id . The ALJ then asked Johnson about a prior incident where, when asked to provide a urine sample, Johnson stated that she did not have to urinate and needed to go to an appointment. Id. at 48. Johnson testified that she did provide a small sample and denied any adulteration of the test. Id.

The ALJ also posed three hypothetical scenarios to the VE involving individuals with different exertional abilities. Id. at 55-56. The first hypothetical individual:

[C]ould lift up to twenty pounds occasionally, lift or carry ten pounds frequently, stand or walk for six and sit for up to six hours per eight hour day with normal breaks, who could frequently climb ramps or stairs, occasionally climb ladder [sic], ropes or scaffolds, frequently balance, occasionally stoop, frequently kneel, occasionally crouch, [and] frequently crawl.

Id. at 55. The VE responded that such an individual could perform the "Maintenance" position as the claimant had performed it. Id . The ALJ then described the second hypothetical individual as the "[s]ame as the first with regard to the exertional and postural limitations, but in addition, work [involving] limited to simple routine and repetitive tasks, normally simple work related decisions, [and] few, if any, work place changes." Id . The VE responded that such an individual could perform the same position previously identified. Id . The last hypothetical involved "an individual who could do simple routine tasks, but may not be able to recall instructions well enough to do simple repetitive tasks consistently and who would be unable to complete a full day's work without interruption from psychologically based symptoms." Id. at 56. The VE responded that such an individual could not perform any of the claimant's past work, adding that such an individual could not perform "any work." Id.

C. Medical Evidence

1. Treating ...

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