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Lazzotti v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 12, 2015

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


BARBARA A. McAULIFFE, Magistrate Judge.


Plaintiff Yvonne Wedge Lazzotti ("Plaintiff") seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act.[1] The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted, without oral argument, to Magistrate Judge Barbara A. McAuliffe. The Court finds the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") to be supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and based upon proper legal standards.

Accordingly, this Court affirms the agency's determination to deny benefits.


On January 7, 2011, Plaintiff filed her current application for disability insurance benefits beginning June 2, 2008. AR 12.[2] Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. AR 44, 54. Subsequently, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). ALJ Trevor Skarda held a hearing on March 22, 2012, and issued an order denying benefits on April 16, 2012. AR 12-19. Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council denied, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 1-3. This appeal followed.

Hearing Testimony

The ALJ held a hearing on March 22, 2012, in Stockton, California. AR 24-41. Plaintiff appeared and testified. AR 24. She was represented by attorney Jeffrey Duarte. AR 24. Impartial Vocational Expert ("VE") Stephen Schmidt also testified. AR 24.

Plaintiff primarily alleges disability due to elbow tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. AR 152. She reported that these conditions resulted in arm and hand pain, numbness, and weakness. AR 33-34.

Plaintiff last worked in 2008 as a customer service representative at an emergency roadside assistance company. AR 30. Her position required her to "type word for word" customer needs so that an appropriate emergency vehicle could be dispatched to the customer's location. AR 29. Plaintiff stopped working at that position due to pain in her hands. Plaintiff filed a workers' compensation claim and her employer sent her to a clinic for testing. AR 31. Her doctor diagnosed carpal tunnel and tendonitis in both arms. AR 31. Plaintiff left her position and had a carpal tunnel and tendonitis release surgery performed on her right arm the next day. Plaintiff's right arm surgery was only mildly successful and as a result she decided against having another surgery on her left arm. AR 32.

In 2009, Plaintiff switched physicians and began seeing Dr. Amsden, a pain management physician, as a part of her workers' compensation claim. AR 32. Plaintiff continued to see Dr. Amsden, her treating physician, consistently from 2009 to the hearing date. AR 33. Dr. Amsden prescribed Plaintiff a TENS unit, injections, and pain medication. AR 33. Plaintiff testified that the injections help momentarily but her pain eventually returns. AR 33. Plaintiff described her pain as "a sharp shooting pain going up my forearm to my elbow and an electric shock feeling." AR 33. Plaintiff also testified that her hands fall asleep. AR 33.

When asked about her daily activities, Plaintiff testified that she performs household chores, but she frequently needs to stop to take breaks because her arms swell or her hands fall asleep. AR 36. The pain from her hands and arms also causes her to lose focus, making it difficult for her to concentrate. Plaintiff testified that she also gets her son to help her lift heavy objects and help her around the house. Plaintiff frequently drops things and has weak grip strength so her son helps her with cooking and stirring things. AR 34. After performing regular activities for more than just a short period of time, Plaintiff testified that she experiences swelling in her arms as well as throbbing pain. AR 35.

The ALJ questioned Plaintiff about Dr. Amsden's sitting limitation, as her condition was not synonymous with a sitting limitation. Plaintiff explained that she has trouble sitting for extended periods of time because elevating her arms on an arm rest causes tingling in her arms and her hands fall asleep. AR 36. When asked about her additional impairments, Plaintiff testified that she also suffers from sleep apnea. AR 36. Plaintiff testified that her sleep apnea is seeing improvement since her doctor prescribed a CPAP machine and she had bariatric surgery to help with her sleep issues. AR 37.

Thereafter, the ALJ elicited testimony of the vocational expert ("VE") Stephen Schmidt. AR 38. The VE testified that Plaintiff's past jobs were best classified as receiver, dispatcher, and day worker. AR 38. The ALJ asked the VE hypothetical questions, contemplating an individual of claimant's age, education, and work history. AR 38. In his first hypothetical, the ALJ asked the VE to consider an individual who could complete the full range of light work with no additional limitations. The VE testified that individual could perform Plaintiff's past jobs as performed. AR 38.

In a second hypothetical, the ALJ asked the VE to consider the same individual, but the individual is additionally limited to frequent bilateral handling and fingering. The VE stated that the hypothetical individual could not perform Plaintiff's past relevant jobs, but would be able to perform the representative job of "information clerk, DOT 237.367-018, light." AR 38. If that same individual was instead limited to occasional bilateral handling and fingering, that individual would not be able to perform any jobs as they exist in the national economy.

In a third hypothetical, the ALJ asked the VE to consider an individual who is limited to light work with occasional handling and fingering with the right upper extremity, and "frequent handling and fingering with the left." AR 39. The VE stated that the hypothetical individual could perform the representative job of "information clerk." AR 39.

In a final hypothetical, the ALJ asked the VE to consider an individual who can walk/stand for no more than 30 minutes at a time and can sit for one hour. In an eight-hour work day, this individual is able to sit for six hours and stand and walk for four hours, and may need a sit/stand option, allowing her to sit or stand alternatively as long as the total amount of sitting does not exceed six hours. The individual would need unscheduled breaks every two hours for five to ten minutes; the individual could occasionally lift less than five pounds, never lift 10 or more pounds. The individual is also limited to occasional twisting, stooping, crouching, and climbing ladders and stairs. The individual can grasp for six percent or less each day. The individual would also miss work more than four days a month. The VE testified that a person with such limitations would not be able to perform any jobs as they exist in the national economy. AR 40.

Medical Record

The entire medical record was reviewed by the Court. AR 216-745. The medical evidence, summarized here, will also be referenced below as necessary to this Court's decision.

The record documents Plaintiff first receiving treatment for bilateral wrist and forearm pain on July 30, 2007. AR 228-229. At that time, Plaintiff exhibited minimal wrist swelling, tenderness to palpation of the wrists, negative Tinel and Phalen signs, and intact motor strength and sensation. AR 229. Plaintiff received hand/arm treatment from Robert Santos, M.D. on a monthly basis for the remainder of 2007. AR 222-227. In August 2007, Dr. Santos noted that Plaintiff was improving overall, with slightly reduced range of motion in the right forearm, and positive Tinel's sign in both wrists. AR 226-227. By November 2007, he noted that Plaintiff was 55% improved after 3.5 months of conservative treatment. AR 223. Plaintiff exhibited normal range of motion, but maintained positive Tinel's sign bilaterally. AR 223. In December 2007, Plaintiff reported that her wrist tendonitis was "much improved." AR 222.

In January 2008, Plaintiff transferred treatment to Joshua Richards, M.D. AR 218-219, 221. Dr. Richards observed full range of motion in Plaintiff's elbows, wrists and fingers, with minimal tenderness with palpation to her wrists. AR 218-219, 308, 310. He also noted that Plaintiff's motor strength and sensation were intact. AR 308. Nevertheless, Plaintiff continued to describe sharp pain in her elbow consistent with tennis elbow (also known as lateral epicondylitis). AR 310. Accordingly, on June 11, 2008, Dr. Richards operated on Plaintiff's right elbow, performing a right lateral epicondylitis debridement and repair. AR 342. Post-surgery, Plaintiff initially improved, denying numbness, but reporting elbow tenderness. AR 292, 295, 297. As of December 2008, Plaintiff's active range of motion in her right upper extremity was within functional limits, and her strength was 70% of normal. AR 331. At that time, Plaintiff denied numbness or tingling in her right hand. AR 331.

In March and June 2009, Dr. Richards noted that Plaintiff had mildly restricted range of motion in her wrist, but normal range of motion in her thumb and fingers. AR 288. Examinations performed between September 2009 and April 2010 revealed residual tenderness over the right elbow, positive Tinel and Phalen signs, ...

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