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Stevens v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California, Eureka Division

December 10, 2014

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

For Lenore Jean Stevens, Plaintiff: Kenneth J. Collins, LEAD ATTORNEY, Arcata, CA.

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


NANDOR J. VADAS, United States Magistrate Judge.


Plaintiff, Lenore Jean Stevens, seeks judicial review of an administrative law judge (" ALJ") decision denying her application for supplemental security income (" SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Tr. 20. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision was denied by the Appeals Council. The decision thus is the " final decision" of the Commissioner of Social Security, which this court may review. See 42 U.S.C. § § 405(g), 1383(c)(3). Both parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge. (Docs. 4 & 13). The court therefore may decide the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the court will grant Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and will deny Defendant's motion for summary judgment.


The Commissioner's findings " as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A district court has a limited scope of review and can only set aside a denial of benefits if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error. Flaten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is " more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 979 (9th Cir. 1997). " In determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, " a district court must review the administrative record as a whole, considering " both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). The Commissioner's conclusion is upheld where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).


In 2007, Plaintiff was adjudged disabled and awarded benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Tr. 20. Sometime in 2008, Plaintiff was incarcerated and lost her benefits. Pl.'s Br. (Doc. 19) at 2. Following her release from prison, Plaintiff filed a new claim for disability, alleging an onset date of January 1, 2002 and alleging both physical and mental impairments. Tr. 20.

A. Relevant mental medical history

The evidence of record establishes that Plaintiff has received treatment for a medley of mental issues. In November of 2007, psychiatrist Dr. Jain placed Plaintiff on involuntary suicide precautions and recommended inpatient psychiatric treatment once she was stable. Tr. 28. In September of 2008, Plaintiff received inpatient treatment and was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and personality disorder. Id. In 2009, Dr. Jain diagnosed Plaintiff with schozoaffective disorder, polysubstance dependence, and borderline personality disorder. Tr. 29. In 2010, a state agency consultant diagnosed Plaintiff with schizoaffective disorder. Id. In 2011, Dr. Hayman diagnosed Plaintiff with schizoaffective disorder and panic disorder with agoraphobia. Id. In 2011 consultative examiner, Dr. McGehee, diagnosed Plaintiff with paranoid type schizophrenia, paranoid personality disorder, and schizotypal personality disorder. Id. In addition, Plaintiff has been treated for depression, insomnia, and Sx disorder. See Tr. 512-14 & 540-47.

B. Relevant physical medical history

Plaintiff has a history of back pain, a history of seizures, suffers obesity and from chronic liver disease, and has a substance abuse disorder. Imaging, from as early as 2007, shows that Plaintiff suffers degenerative disk disease. Tr. 29 & 525. In 2008, Plaintiff was prescribed a cane. Tr. 29. In 2009, Dr. Workman performed a vertebroplasy for a non-healing compression fracture. Tr. 516. A lumbar spine x-ray on December 9, 2009, showed post-surgical changes at L1 and degenerative changes at L4-5 and L5-S1. Tr. 411. A lumbosacral x-ray dated June 22, 2011, showed an old L1 fracture " treated with bone cement" and confirmed degenerative disc space at L4-5 and L5-S1. Tr. 565. On June 29, 2011, the following abnormalities were described: a superior endplate compression deformity of L1 with thirty percent loss of height and mild retropulsion. Tr. 517. Primary care physician Frank Fisher, M.D., completed a Medical Source Statement -- Physical on June 27, 2011. Tr. 513-14. He listed extensive limitations on sitting, standing, and walking, and noted that Plaintiff must lie down every two hours for fifteen minutes due to back pain. Id.


A person filing a claim for social security disability benefits (" the claimant") must show that she has the " inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment" which has lasted or is expected to last for twelve or more months. 20 C.F.R. § § 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.909. The ALJ must consider all evidence in the claimant's case record to determine disability (Id. § 416.920(a)(3)), and must use a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether the claimant is disabled (Id. § 416.920). " [T]he ALJ has a special duty to fully and fairly develop the record and to assure that the claimant's interests are considered." Brown v. Heckler, 713 F.2d 441, 443 (9th Cir. 1983).

Here, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's application for benefits under the required five-step ...

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