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Yocum v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 11, 2015

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


JENNIFER L. THURSTON, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Donna Elizabeth Yocum asserts she is entitled to benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff argues the administrative law judge ("ALJ") erred in evaluating the evidence, and seeks judicial review of the decision to deny her application for benefits. Because the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work, as explained below, the administrative decision is REMANDED for further proceedings.


Plaintiff filed his application for benefits on October 25, 2010, alleging she became disabled on January 30, 2010. (Doc. 10-3 at 13.) The Social Security Administration denied his application initially and upon reconsideration. (Doc. 10-4.) After requesting a hearing, Plaintiff testified before the ALJ. (Doc. 10-3 at 26.) The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled and issued an order denying benefits. (Doc. 10-3 at 13-19.) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the decision. (Id. at 2-4.) Thus, the ALJ's determination became the final 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 Court must uphold the ALJ's determination that the claimant is not disabled 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 disability. Terry v. Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1273, 1275 (9th Cir. 1990). If a claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove the claimant is able to engage in other 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. §§ 404.1520, 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 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 testimonial and objective medical evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927, 416.929.

A. Medical Evidence

On December 8, 2009, Dr. John Casey noted Plaintiff reported having low back pain that was "progressively getting worse." (Doc. 10-8 at 3.) He ordered an MRI of her lumbar spine, which showed "mild multilevel degenerative disc disease with areas of disc desiccation and annular bulging." (Id. at 8.) Dr. John Martin determined: "The greatest annual bulging is at L2-L3 and slightly less at L3-L4." (Id. ) Further, Dr. Martin opined there was "no spinal or foraminal stenosis." (Id. )

In January 2010, Dr. Casey noted Plaintiff reported "having persisting ongoing pain complaints to her lumbar spine, " which was "radiating into her buttocks and into the sciatic notch region." (Doc. 10-8 at 2.) He prescribed Tramadol for pain, and Soma as a muscle relaxant. (Id. at 2, 4.) In addition, Dr. Casey referred Plaintiff to twelve sessions of physical therapy. (Id. at 6.)

Plaintiff completed her physical therapy in February 2010. (Doc. 10-8 at 5.) Her therapist, Hailey Himes believed Plaintiff "made excellent progress in therapy." (Id. ) Plaintiff "report[ed] that her pain levels... decreased significantly" from a range of "3-9/10" to "2-5/10." (Id. ) Ms. Himes determined Plaintiff's flexion, extension, rotation, and lateral flexion were within normal limits. (Id. )

On March 5, 2010, Dr. Richard Slovek performed an orthopedic surgery consultation. (Doc. 10-8 at 33, 48.) Dr. Slovek noted Plaintiff had an x-ray that showed moderate osteoarthritis in the right hip and very mild osteoarthritis in the left hip. (Id. ) In May 2010, Dr. Slovek performed a right hip total replacement. (Id. at 10, 15-17.)

After performing the surgery, Dr. Slovek continued to treat Plaintiff. At a follow-up appointment on May 20, 2010, Dr. Slovek noted Plaintiff was "doing home rehabilitative therapy and exercise." (Doc. 10-8 at 52.) Dr. Slovek authorized Plaintiff to "start outpatient physical therapy." (Id. ) In June 2010, he noted Plaintiff was "[w]alking with a cane, " and Plaintiff reported "pain in her other hip [and] low back." (Id. at 53.)

In July 2010, Plaintiff continued to report pain in her low back and left hip. (Doc. 10-8 at 30.) Dr. Slovek noted Plaintiff was "[d]oing well with her right hip without problems or complications but the back and left hip [were] keeping her from returning to work." (Id. at 54.) Due to ...

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