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Phillips v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California

August 5, 2014


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For Alonzo DeWitt Phillips, Plaintiff: David J. Linden, LEAD ATTORNEY, David Joseph Linden, Attorney at Law, Napa, CA.

For Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant: Alex Gene Tse, U.S. Attorneys Office, San Francisco, CA; Marla Kendall Letellier, Office of the Regional Chief Counsel, Region IX, Social Security Administration, San Francisco, CA.

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WILLIAM H. ORRICK, United States District Judge.

The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment in this Social Security appeal. Plaintiff Alonzo Phillips suffers from a variety of impairments and believes that the Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ) erred in several respects. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, however, and so the plaintiff's motion is DENIED and defendant's motion is GRANTED.



On May 14, 2010, Phillips filed an application for Supplemental Social Security Income (" SSI" ) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Administrative Record (" AR" ) 20. His application was denied initially and again on reconsideration. AR 77-81, 84-89. Phillips requested a hearing and appeared before an ALJ on August 3, 2011. AR 91, 111. During this hearing, the ALJ rescheduled the hearing date so Phillips could obtain representation. AR 72. Phillips retained an attorney and a second SSI hearing was held on November 2, 2011. AR. 127, 129. On November 15,

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2011, the ALJ denied his claim for benefits. AR 17. On August 30, 2012, Phillips submitted a request for review to the Appeals Council. AR 213-17. The ALJ's denial became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council declined review on June 17, 2013. AR 1. Phillips filed this action for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Dkt. No. 1.


At the age of seven, Phillips suffered head trauma which resulted in loss of vision in his left eye. AR 220. When he applied for SSI in 2010, he indicated that he had been blind since January 1, 1975. AR 154. He suffers light sensitivity in his right eye and gets headaches. AR 220. His other ailments include a 2002 fracture in his right fibula and ankle which required pin stabilization. AR 42, 239. He also suffers from anxiety, particularly when he is around people. AR 41, 316.

Phillips's highest grade of school completed is 11th grade. AR 174. He has been incarcerated three times, for ten years, one year, and four months, respectively. AR 37-38, 251, 265. His only reported work was as a full-time cashier at Goodwill in 2000 and then as a full-time food service worker at University of California, Berkeley from 2000-2003. AR 179. He periodically lives with his sister-in-law and sometimes helps by doing house chores and watching her young grandchildren. AR 46-49. Phillips has also lived in homeless shelters, although he prefers not to live in a shelter because he has " a problem with too many people." AR 39.

Several medical professionals have reviewed Phillips physical impairments. On July 16, 2007, Dr. Kala Swamynathan, an examining physician, conducted an ophthalmological examination on Phillips and concluded that there was no light perception on Phillips's left eye and 20/20 vision in his right eye. AR 220, 222. Phillips's right eye had pigmentation of the bulbar conjunctiva, and cysts and concretions in the inferior palpebral conjunctiva. AR 220. On August 3, 2007, state agency consultative physician Dr. Eskander determined that Phillips has limited overall vision and should avoid work requiring " good depth perception" and commercial driving. AR 228-29. On September 16, 2010, Dr. Eskander completed another assessment and noted that Phillips's field of vision was unlimited, but again concluded that Phillips should not participate in work requiring good depth perception, or commercial driving. AR 272-73. Dr. Eskander also determined that Phillips has no exertional or postural limitations. AR 271-72. On February 15, 2011, Dr. Spitz, a consultative physician, completed a physical RFC assessment and determined that Phillips's RFC precludes work requiring " good depth perception" such as " driving, work at unprotected heights or with hazardous machinery" in light of his limited depth perception and limited field of vision. AR 296. Dr. Spitz also determined that Phillips has no other exertional limitations. AR. 290.

Medical professionals have also reviewed Phillips psychological impairments. On February 22, 2010, a team of mental health treatment members at the California Department of Corrections found that Phillips suffers from depression. AR 250.[1] However, they also concluded that Phillips's intellectual functioning, concentration, attention, and memory were within normal limits. AR 249. It was also determined

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that Phillips had a global assessment of functioning (GAF) score of 65 which indicates " [s]ome mild symptoms (e.g., depressed mood and mild insomnia) OR some difficulty in social, occupational, or school functioning ... but generally functioning pretty well, has some meaningful interpersonal relationships." AR 250; Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 34 (4th ed. 2000).[2] On February 15, 2011, State agency non-examining consultative psychologist Dr. Davis conducted a psychiatric review of Phillips's medical records and determined that Phillips did not have any difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. AR 308.

On February 22, 2011, Dr. Harinder Auluck, an examining psychiatrist, completed an evaluation and concluded that " [Phillips's] ability to interact effectively with coworkers, supervisors and members of the public is clearly compromised because of his increased anxiety levels. His ability to maintain an eight-hour workday or forty-hour workweek, on consistent basis, is also compromised at the present time." AR 317. Phillips has " chemical diathesis for anxiety and depressive disorder" and was diagnosed with anxiety disorder. AR 316. Furthermore, Phillips is " likely to experience difficulty dealing with changes in routine work setting based on his psychiatric and physical problems." AR 317. Dr. Auluck also concluded that Phillips " is able to understand, carry out and remember simple instructions." AR 317. Moreover, Phillips's " thought processes were coherent ... insight and judgment intact ... intelligence is average ...." AR 316. Also, Dr. Auluck determined that Phillips's GAF score is 55 which indicates " moderate symptoms (e.g., flat affect and circumstantial speech, occasional panic attacks) OR moderate difficulty in social, occupational, or school functioning (e.g., few friends, conflict with peers or co-workers)." AR 316; Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 34 (4th ed. 2000).

In evaluating Phillips's disability claim, the ALJ determined that Phillips has the following severe impairments: left eye blindness and depressive disorder. AR 22. The ALJ found no evidence to show that claimant's 2002 ankle injury or bulging left eye represents a severe impairment. AR 22, 42. At step three, the ALJ found that Phillips did not suffer from an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 23. With respect to his mental impairment (" paragraph B" criteria), the ALJ determined that " [i]n activities of daily living, claimant has mild restriction. In social functioning, claimant has mild difficulties. With regard to concentration, persistence or pace, claimant has moderate difficulties. As for episodes of decompensation, claimant has experienced no episodes of decompensation, which have been of extended duration." AR 23. The ALJ noted that " [t]he limitations identified in the 'paragraph B' criteria are not a residual functional capacity assessment ... [t]he mental residual functional capacity assessment used at steps 4 and 5 of the sequential evaluation process requires a more detailed assessment ...." AR 23.

At step four, the ALJ found that Phillips has the residual functional capacity

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(" RFC" )[3] " to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: " limitations to simple routine 1-2 step unskilled tasks with preclusion from interaction with the general public and tandem work with coworkers." AR 23. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff is also prohibited from working at heights and climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. AR 23. Finally, Phillips was also precluded from work that requires depth perception. AR 23-24. At the hearing, the vocational expert (" VE" ) testified that the claimant could, given the limitations, perform at least three jobs that are sufficiently available in the local and national economy: surveillance system monitor, housekeeper, and office helper. AR 26.

In light of these findings, the ALJ found that Phillips was not disabled and not entitled to SSI. AR 26-27.



A claimant is " disabled" as defined by the Social Security Act if: (1) " he is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months," and (2) the impairment is " of such severity that he not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § § 1382c(a)(3)(A)-(B); Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012). To determine whether a claimant is disabled, an ALJ engages in a five-step sequential analysis as required under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v).

In the first two steps of the evaluation, the claimant must establish that he or she (1) is not performing substantial gainful activity, and (2) is under a " severe" impairment. Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(ii). An impairment must have lasted or be expected to last 12 months in order to be considered severe. Id. § 416.909. In the third step, the claimant must establish that his or her impairment meets or medically equals a listed impairment described in the administrative regulations. Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal one of the listed impairments, before proceeding to the fourth step, the ALJ is to make a residual functional capacity determination based on all the evidence in the record; this determination is used to evaluate the claimant's work capacity for steps four and five. Id. § 416.920(e). In step four, the claimant must establish that his or her impairment prevents the claimant from performing relevant work he or she did in the past. Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). The claimant bears the burden to prove steps one through four, as " [a]t all times, the burden is on the claimant to establish [his] entitlement to disability insurance benefits." Id. (alterations in original). Once the claimant has established this prima facie case, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show at the fifth step that the clamant is able to do other work, and that there are significant number of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can do. Id. § § 416.920(a)(4)(v),(g); 416.960(c).


Under 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g), this Court reviews the ALJ's ...

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