United States District Court, E.D. California
MARIA M. RAMIREZ, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFF'S SOCIAL SECURITY COMPLAINT INTRODUCTION
GARY S. AUSTIN, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Maria M. Ramirez ("Plaintiff") seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income payments under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The matter is pending before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted, without oral argument, to the Honorable Gary S. Austin, United States Magistrate Judge.
SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS
On November 20, 2008, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging disability beginning October 16, 2008. AR 148-155. The Disability Determination Services Division, California Department of Health and Human Services ("DDS"), denied her application initially on May 5, 2009, and upon reconsideration on June 7, 2010. AR 88-91; 93-97. Subsequently, on September 13, 2011, a Social Security Administration administrative law judge ("ALJ") conducted a hearing on Plaintiff's claim. AR 40-65. Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at the hearing. AR 40-65. A vocational expert also testified. AR 40-65. In a decision dated October 7, 2011, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 22-39. On March 8, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 1-11. Plaintiff then commenced this action in District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c).
In evaluating a claimant's disability the ALJ is required to undertake a sequential five-step analysis to determine: (1) whether a claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of alleged disability; (2) whether the claimant had medically-determinable "severe" impairments; (3) whether these impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 CFR § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) whether the claimant retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform his past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant had the ability to perform other jobs existing in significant numbers at the regional and national level. 20 CFR § 404.1520(a)-(f).
In her written decision regarding Plaintiff's application for social security benefits, the ALJ first found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date. AR 27. Next, she found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease, right shoulder degenerative joint disease with tendinopathy, left knee degenerative joint disease, and obesity. AR 27; s ee 20 CFR 416.920(c). Plaintiff also alleged that she had anxiety, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and carpal tunnel syndrome. AR 27. The ALJ determined that these were not severe impairments. AR 27; see 20 CFR §§ 416.920(c), 404.1521, and 416.921. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 29. The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity. AR 29. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. AR 34. At step five, the ALJ found that, considering her residual functional capacity, along with her age, education, and work experience, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. AR 34.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether (1) it is supported by substantial evidence and (2) it applies the correct legal standards. See Carmickle v. Commissioner, 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. 2008); Hoopai v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 1071, 1074 (9th Cir. 2007). "Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance." Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). It is "relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Id.
I. The Diagnosis of Chronic Pain made by Consultative Examiner, Dr. Michael Froehler
A. Issue Presented for Review
Plaintiff's appeal is primarily based on the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome was not a severe impairment. Doc. 14 at 9:2-9. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not properly evaluate the evidence related to Plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome as required by 20 CFR § 416.920(a)(3). Doc. 14 at 9:8-9. Specifically, the ALJ failed to consider a diagnosis of chronic pain made by the consultative examiner, Dr. Michael Froehler, that Plaintiff alleges stems from carpal tunnel syndrome. Doc. 14 at 10:1-3; AR 304. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ also erred by failing to consider Dr. Froehler's diagnosis of chronic pain in assessing Plaintiff's residual functional capacity. Doc. 14 at 10:16-17; AR 304.
Defendant argues that the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome was not a severe impairment was irrelevant to the ultimate disability determination because the ALJ found that other impairments were severe, and, considering all functional limitations established by the evidence, still did not find Plaintiff disabled. Doc. 17 at 24:22-26:3.
B. Legal Standards
At step two of the five-step sequential disability inquiry, the Commissioner determines "whether medical evidence establishes an impairment or combination of impairments of such severity as to be the basis of a finding of inability to engage in any [substantial gainful activity]." SSR 85-28, SSR LEXIS 19 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). At this step, a claimant must make a threshold showing that: (1) she has a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments; and (2) the impairment or combination of impairments is severe. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146-47 (1987); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). "Thus, the burden of proof is on the claimant to establish a medically determinable severe impairment that significantly limits her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, or the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs.'" Jefferson v. Colvin, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121645, *20 (E.D. Cal. Aug. 29, 2014)( citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a); 416.921(a)).
Between steps three and four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity. 20 CFR § 416.920(e); Pinto v. Massanar i, 249 F.3d 840, 844-45 (9th Cir. 2001). A claimant's residual functional capacity is "the most [the claimant] can still do despite [his or her] limitations" and is assessed "based on all the relevant evidence." 20 CFR §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). The ALJ's residual functional capacity analysis must consider all of the claimant's "medically determinable impairments, " including those that are not severe. 20 CFR §§ 416.920(e), 416.945(a)(2); SSR 96-8p, 1996 SSR LEXIS 5. The ALJ must consider symptoms, including pain, that are reasonably attributable to a medically determinable impairment. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 883 (9th Cir. 2006).
C. Relevant Medical Findings
On April 10, 2010, Dr. Michael Froehler, MD, conducted a consultative neurological examination of Plaintiff at the request of DDS and prepared a report documenting his findings. AR 302-304. Dr. Froehler noted that Plaintiff had multiple complaints of chronic pain affecting most parts of her body but she was referred to him for a neurologic examination. Accordingly, he focused on Plaintiff's complaints of carpal tunnel syndrome and low back pain. AR 302. He noted that Plaintiff reported daily pain and swelling in her hands and fingers which was ongoing for about sixteen years. AR 302. Regarding Plaintiff's evaluation and treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome, Dr. Froehler's report states as follows:
Apparently she was told in the past that she had carpal tunnel syndrome although she has not had any specific evaluation in terms of nerve conduction studies or an EMG. I do not think that she has seen a neurologist in the ...