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Jefferson v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. California

August 29, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JENNIFER L. THURSTON, Magistrate Judge.

Monica Jean Jefferson ("Plaintiff") asserts she is entitled to benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the decision denying benefits, asserting the administrative law judge erred in analyzing the medical evidence and evaluating the credibility of her subjective complaints. For the reasons set forth below, the administrative decision is AFFIRMED.


Plaintiff filed an application for a supplemental security income benefits on July 14, 2010, alleging disability beginning August 30, 2002. (Doc. 11-6 at 2.) The Social Security Administration denied her application for benefits initially on January 13, 2011. (Doc. 11-4 at 2.) Plaintiff requested a hearing on January 21, 2011, and Plaintiff testified before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on August 15, 2011. (Doc. 11-3 at 14.) The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act, and issued an order denying benefits on October 21, 2011. ( Id. at 14-25.) Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council of Social Security, which denied review of the ALJ's decision on April 8, 2013. (Doc. 11-3 at 2.) Therefore, the ALJ's determination became the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner").


District courts have a limited scope of judicial review for disability claims after a decision by the Commissioner to deny benefits under the Social Security Act. When reviewing findings of fact, such as whether a claimant was disabled, the Court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The ALJ's determination that the claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court if the proper legal standards were applied and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. See Sanchez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 812 F.2d 509, 510 (9th Cir. 1987).

Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197 (1938)). The record as a whole must be considered, because "[t]he court must consider both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion." Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985).


To qualify for benefits under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish he is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual shall be considered to have a disability only if:

his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The burden of proof is on a claimant to establish his disability. Terry v. Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1273, 1275 (9th Cir. 1990). Once a claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant is able to engage in substantial gainful employment. Maounis v. Heckler, 738 F.2d 1032, 1034 (9th Cir. 1984).


To achieve uniform decisions, the Commissioner established a sequential five-step process for evaluating a claimant's alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920 (a)-(f). The process requires the ALJ to determine whether Plaintiff (1) engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of alleged disability, (2) had medically determinable severe impairments (3) that met or equaled one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and whether Plaintiff (4) had the residual functional capacity to perform to past relevant work or (5) the ability to perform other work existing in significant numbers at the state and national level. Id. The ALJ must consider objective medical evidence and opinion hearing testimony. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.927, 416.929.

A. Medical Evidence

Plaintiff received treatment at the H. Claude Hudson Clinic on May 5, 2010, reporting that she had suffered a fall that day when getting out of the bathtub. (Doc. 11-8 at 2, 5.) Plaintiff said she had low back pain and bilateral knee pain, although the pain was worse in her right knee. ( Id. at 3.) She described the pain as 8/10, and was prescribed pain medication to address it. ( Id. at 5.) Dr. Arnold Hageman reviewed x-rays of Plaintiffs right knee, and found Plaintiff had mild osteoarthrosis. ( Id. at 48.) Dr. Hageman also reviewed x-rays of the lumbosacral spine, which was normal. ( Id. )

On November 12, 2010, Plaintiff was treated at the Hudson Clinic for pain. (Doc. 11-8 at 37.) At this visit, she reported her pain was 9/10. Dr. Hageman reviewed x-rays of Plaintiff's chest and found Plaintiff had "degenerative changes of the thoracic spine." ( Id. at 43.)

On December 8, 2010, Plaintiff was treated for night sweats and coughing. ( Id. at 35.) She reported that her pain was a 2/10, and was diagnosed with "knee, back [and] musculoskeletal pain." ( Id. at 36.)

Dr. Harlan Bleeker performed an orthopedic evaluation on December 30, 2010, at which time Plaintiff weighed 330 pounds. (Doc. 11-8 at 11-12.) Dr. Bleeker noted Plaintiff "complain[ed] of pain in her neck, both shoulders, and both wrists when she picks things up." ( Id. ) Plaintiff reported having "pain in her low back going down both legs to all her toes, " and she used a cane due to the pain in her knees. ( Id. ) Dr. Bleeker observed Plaintiff had "a wadding type of gate, " and "require[d] assistance getting on and off the examination table." ( Id. at 12.) Upon examination, Plaintiff had a normal range of motion in her neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers. ( Id. at 12.) Dr. Bleeker found Plaintiff's knee flexion was below normal limits, and was "limited by the obesity of her thighs." ( Id. ) Further, Dr. Bleeker ordered x-rays of Plaintiff's pelvis, which appeared normal, and her right knee, which showed "marked tri-compartmental degenerative arthritis." ( Id. at 14.) Further, Dr. Bleeker diagnosed Plaintiff with degenerative disk disease and degenerative arthritis in her cervical and lumbar spine. ( Id. ) Based upon the examination and the x-rays, Dr. Bleeker opined:

The claimant requires the use of a cane for short and long distances. She cannot kneel, squat or climb. She can lift 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently. She can only occasionally reach with either upper extremity above the level of the shoulder joints. She can sit 6 out of 8 hours, stand and walk up to 2 hours with normal periods of rest using her cane.

( Id. at 14.)

Dr. Alice Davidson completed a residual functional capacity assessment on January 12, 2011. (Doc. 11-8 at 23-30.) Dr. Davidson opined Plaintiff was able to lift ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently. ( Id. at 24.) In addition, she believed Plaintiff was able to stand and/or walk at least two hours in an eight-hour workday and sit about six hours in an eight-hour workday. ( Id. ) Dr. Davidson opined that Plaintiff had an unlimited ability to push and pull, including the operation of hand/and or foot controls. ...

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