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Torres v. Colvin

United States District Court, Central District of California

November 7, 2014

YOLANDA TORRES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

PATRICK J. WALSH, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff appeals a decision by Defendant Social Security Administration (“the Agency”), denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). She claims that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when she: (1) found that Plaintiff was not credible, (2) rejected the treating doctors’ opinions, and (3) relied on the vocational expert’s testimony. For the reasons explained below, the Court concludes that the ALJ erred and remands the case to the Agency for further proceedings.

II. SUMMARY OF PROCEEDINGS

In December 2010, Plaintiff applied for SSI and DIB, alleging that she was disabled due to carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, and headaches. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 152-60, 170.) The Agency denied the applications initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ. (AR 84-88.) On February 27, 2012, she appeared with counsel and testified at the hearing. (AR 35-64.) The ALJ subsequently issued a decision denying benefits. (AR 16-29.) Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied review. (AR 4-11.) She then commenced this action.

III. ANALYSIS

A. The ALJ’s Credibility Determination

Plaintiff testified, in essence, that she experienced such severe pain in her arms, hands, and body that she was unable to work. The ALJ rejected this testimony for a number of reasons. For the following reasons, the Court finds that she erred in doing so.

ALJs are responsible for judging the credibility of witnesses, including the claimants. In making these determinations, they can rely on ordinary credibility evaluation techniques. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1284 (9th Cir. 1996). But, where a claimant has produced medical evidence of an impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms alleged and there is no evidence of malingering, an ALJ may only reject the claimant’s testimony for specific, clear, and convincing reasons, id. at 1283-84, that are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir. 2002).

The ALJ cited a number of reasons for questioning Plaintiff’s testimony. She noted that Plaintiff “engaged in a somewhat normal level of daily activity, ” including driving, shopping, attending her daughter’s school meetings, and occasionally eating out in restaurants, and concluded that this undermined her testimony that her pain precluded her from working. (AR 21.) Though the record supports the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff performed these activities, the Court does not agree with the ALJ that her ability to perform them undermined her testimony that she could not work. They are relatively brief, non-strenuous activities that do not establish that Plaintiff was lying when she claimed that she could not work full time. See Vertigan v. Halter, 260 F.3d 1044, 1050 (9th Cir. 2001) (“This court has repeatedly asserted that the mere fact that a plaintiff has carried on certain daily activities, such as grocery shopping, driving a car, or limited walking for exercise, does not in any way detract from her credibility as to her overall disability.”). Further, the ALJ failed to explain how Plaintiff’s ability to drive, for example, translated into an ability to work full time. See Gonzalez v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 1197, 1201 (9th Cir. 1990) (holding ALJ errs in failing to explain how ability to perform daily activities translated into ability to perform work).

The ALJ also relied on the fact that Plaintiff seemed to contradict herself when she testified that she had no trouble walking but also testified that she could no longer walk one- half mile two to three times a week because of pain. (AR 21.) Though the ALJ is entitled to rely on inconsistencies in a claimant’s testimony in evaluating her credibility, the transcript does not support the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff contradicted herself. She testified that she generally had no problem walking but added that “it depends on the distance.” (AR 58.) On the next page of the transcript, she testified that she used to walk one-half mile with her husband two to three times a week but had stopped because of the pain. (AR 59.) The Court does not interpret the testimony as contradictory.

The ALJ found that Plaintiff’s testimony that she was fatigued was contradicted by her testimony that she took naps for four to six hours on certain days and still slept through the night. (AR 21.) The Court does not see these statements as contradictory, either. In fact, it seems to support Plaintiff’s testimony that she suffers from fatigue and that is why she naps during the day.

The ALJ next focused on the objective medical evidence and found that it did not support Plaintiff’s testimony. She looked at, for example, the fact that Plaintiff had a full range of motion in her right elbow even though she claimed that she suffered from pain in her right arm and hand. (AR 21.) The Court does not find this to be a persuasive reason for questioning Plaintiff’s testimony as none of the doctors opined that a full range of motion in her elbow was inconsistent with her claim that she suffered from pain in her arm and hand.

The Court has the same reaction to the ALJ’s discussion about atrophy. Without citation, the ALJ reported that atrophy is “a common side effect of prolonged and/or chronic pain due to lack of use of a muscle to avoid pain.” (AR 21.) The ALJ then pointed out that the examining doctor had not detected any atrophy and surmised that the lack of atrophy indicated that Plaintiff was exaggerating her claims of severe pain. (AR 21.) The problem with this finding is that it is premised on the ALJ’s medical conclusion that absence of atrophy ...


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