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Sims v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

July 7, 2014

VENESSA M. SIMS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

LUCY H. KOH, District Judge.

Plaintiff Venessa M. Sims ("Sims") appeals a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Sims' application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. See ECF Nos. 21, 24. Upon consideration of the briefing[1] and for the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Sims' motion and GRANTS the Commissioner's motion.

I. BACKGROUND

Sims was born on May 31, 1969. AR 49. She obtained a two-year associates degree in business administration in the mid-1990s. AR 132-33. She has past work experience as a receptionist, childcare worker, accounting clerk, and general office clerk. AR 23.

On March 24, 2009, Sims filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. AR 151. She also filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on March 31, 2009. AR 151. In both claims, Sims alleged disability beginning on August 30, 2007. AR 151. Specifically, Sims alleged that she suffered from shoulder injuries resulting from a fall at work and depression. AR 298. These claims were initially denied on July 3, 2009, and again upon reconsideration on November 18, 2009. AR 151. Sims then filed a written request for a hearing on January 14, 2010. AR 151. This request was granted, and Sims appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ on July 16, 2010, in San Jose. Sims' claims were denied by the ALJ on October 28, 2010, because the ALJ determined that Sims was capable of performing past relevant work as a receptionist. AR 13.

On January 19, 2012, the Appeals Council vacated and remanded the ALJ's decision. AR 13. In its remand order, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to: (1) further evaluate Sims' depression; (2) give further consideration to Sims' maximum residual functional capacity ("RFC") and provide appropriate rationale with specific references to evidence in the record in support of the assessed limitations; (3) determine Sims' RFC absent consideration of the limiting effects caused by Sims' substance abuse if the ALJ concluded that Sims is disabled but that substance abuse is a contributing factor material to the issue of disability; and (4) obtain evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on Sims' ability to work. AR 13.

On remand, Sims appeared and testified at a hearing before the ALJ on March 19, 2012, in San Jose. AR 13. Lorian I. Hyatt, an impartial vocational expert, also appeared at the hearing. AR 13. Dr. Ulrich B. Jacobson, an impartial medical expert, testified at the hearing via telephone. AR 13. On May 12, 2012, the ALJ issued a written decision concluding that Sims was not disabled because Sims is capable of performing past relevant work as a receptionist, accounting clerk, and general office clerk and is therefore not entitled to benefits. AR 13-25.

In making her finding, the ALJ determined that Sims had not performed substantial gainful activity for portions of the period during which Sims alleged that she was disabled. The ALJ further found that Sims suffered from various severe ailments stemming from left shoulder and left knee injuries, and that Sims' impairments did not meet or medically equal an impairment on the Social Security Administration's list of medical conditions that automatically confer disability status. AR 16-17. The ALJ also determined that Sims' depression caused only minimal limitations in Sims' ability to perform basic activities and thus was not severe. AR 17.

The ALJ then determined that Sims had the RFC to perform light work with the following restrictions: "the claimant is limited in her ability to push and pull overhead. She can reach overhead above the shoulders with the left upper extremity on no more than an occasional basis. The claimant must alternate positions between sitting and standing every 20 minutes, but can still perform work both sitting and standing." AR 18. In light of this RFC finding, the ALJ concluded that Sims was capable of performing past relevant work as a receptionist, accounting clerk, and general office clerk. AR 18. In making the RFC finding, the ALJ relied on Sims' self-reported symptoms, the objective medical evidence from the record, and the testimony of the vocational expert. AR 17. The Court reviews this evidence in turn.

First, the ALJ considered all of Sims' self-reported "symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence." AR 18. The ALJ determined that portions of Sims' personal testimony regarding the severity of her symptoms were not credible due to various inconsistencies in the record. AR 19. Specifically, the ALJ noted that Sims testified in hearings and in written statements that Sims' left shoulder injury and depression prevent her from sustaining gainful employment, completing activities of daily living, and engaging in normal social functioning. AR 19. The ALJ contrasted these alleged symptoms with Sims' reported activities of daily living, which included acting as the primary caregiver for her minor son and dog, preparing basic meals, light housekeeping, laundering clothes, and shopping for groceries. AR 19. Next, the ALJ noted that Sims' alleged limitations and subjective complaints were not fully persuasive in light of Sims' medical records, which, in the aggregate, corroborated one another and were consistent with the ALJ's ultimate RFC finding. AR 22. Throughout the record, many of Sims' doctors, including Sims' examining physician Dr. Stephen Mann and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Samir Sharma, opined that Sims was able to return to work with only minimal limitations. AR 427, 598. As such, the ALJ determined that Sims' testimony concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were not credible to the extent such testimony was inconsistent with the ALJ's RFC finding. AR 19.

Second, the ALJ considered all of the medical evidence submitted as part of the record. AR 19. The ALJ considered records from Kaiser Permanente from September 7, 2004 through July 6, 2007 that provided documentation of treatment of Sims' left shoulder injury, chronic lower back pain, and depression. AR 20. Sims' records note that she was released to modified work duty as of May 24, 2006, with restrictions on lifting more than ten pounds, repetitive bending and stooping, and overhead activities. AR 553.

The ALJ also considered records from four physicians: Drs. Mann, Sharma, Tran, and Afroz. The Court addresses each in turn. Dr. Mann, who examined Sims both in 2007 and 2009 confirmed the presence of shoulder injury and depression and recommended on October 8, 2007 that Sims see an orthopedist. AR 20. On October 8, 2009, Dr. Mann noted Sims' "persistent high level of pain is more representative of her psychiatric problems than any injuries that occurred" and opined that Sims' only work restriction would be limited use of her left arm above shoulder. AR 598.

The ALJ also considered records from orthopedic surgeon Dr. Sharma, who treated Sims for the shoulder injury from January 22, 2008 to October 2009. AR 20. On February 15, 2008, Dr. Sharma ordered an MRI of Sims' left shoulder that revealed swelling in the left shoulder. AR 20. On July 7, 2008, Dr. Sharma preformed arthroscopic surgery in Sims' left shoulder. AR 20. Dr. Sharma recommended that Sims participate in twelve post-operation sessions of physical therapy. AR 462. Sims participated in six sessions. AR 459. Sims' physical therapist noted that Sims was "unable to come to therapy" due to "to personal business" and had "shown slow improvement" due to "her low threshold for pain." AR 459. Sims continued regular follow-up visits with Dr. Sharma through October 2009. AR 426. On April 21, 2009, Dr. Sharma noted that Sims had recently fallen again on her left shoulder. AR 430. On June 2, 2009, Dr. Sharma also noted that Sims was involved in a motor vehicle accident, which exacerbated the shoulder injury. AR 428. Throughout Dr. Sharma's reports, including those following both the second fall and the motor vehicle accident, Dr. Sharma noted that Sims could return to modified work that "should include no overhead lifting and no lifting greater than 15 pounds using her left arm due to her shoulder injury." AR 465.

The ALJ also considered records from internist Dr. Thang Tran, who treated Sims for chronic knee pain from April 29, 2008 to February 14, 2012. AR 20. In these records, Dr. Tran noted that Sims underwent ...


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