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Coronado v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 31, 2015

JOSE J. CORONADO, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JENNIFER L. THURSTON, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Jose Coronado asserts he is entitled to benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, and seeks judicial review of the decision denying his applications. Plaintiff argues the administrative law judge ("ALJ") erred in evaluating the medical evidence. Because Plaintiff fails to meet the burden to demonstrate his impairment satisfies Listing 1.04 and any error in rejecting the opinion of Dr. Pliam is harmless, the administrative decision to deny Plaintiff's applications for benefits is AFFIRMED.


Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income in February 2007, alleging disability beginning June 1, 2006. (Doc. 10-6 at 2, 8.) The Social Security Administration denied his claims initially and upon reconsideration. (Doc. 10-4.) After requesting a hearing, Plaintiff testified before an ALJ on June 25, 2008. (Doc. 10-3 at 25.) The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled and issued an order denying benefits on October 1, 2008. (Id. at 16-22.) His request for review by the Appeals Council was denied on August 3, 2009. (Id. at 4.)

Plaintiff filed a second application for disability insurance benefits and a period of disability on October 26, 2009, alleging disability beginning September 27, 2008. (Doc. 10-12 at 43-44, 48.) These claims were also denied by the Social Security Administration initially and upon reconsideration. (Id. 48.) Plaintiff again requested a hearing, and he testified before an ALJ on June 30, 2011. (Id.; Doc. 10-9 at 77.) The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled and issued an order denying the second claim on August 10, 2011. (Doc. 10-12 at 45.)

While Plaintiff's second application was pending before the ALJ, he appealed the decision on his first application to the United States District Court, Eastern District of California, Case No. 10-cv-00594-AWI-SKO. The Court determined the ALJ erred in assessing the medical record and evaluating Plaintiff's credibility. (Doc. 10-9 at 22-42.) Accordingly, the matter was remanded for further proceedings on September 1, 2011. (Id. at 22.)

In light of the remand from the District Court and Plaintiff's request for review of the decision related to his second application, the Appeals Council associated the claims filed in 2007 with the claims filed in 2009. (Doc. 10-9 at 18.) The Appeals Council vacated the decisions issued on both applications and remanded the combined cases to an ALJ for further proceedings, as ordered by the District Court. (Id. at 18-19.)

Plaintiff testified for a third time before an ALJ on July 26, 2012. (Doc. 10-9 at 45.) The ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled and issued an order denying his applications for benefits on September 7, 2012. (Doc. 10-12 at 7-23.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of this decision on September 16, 2013. (Doc. 10-9 at 2-5.) Therefore, 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 ALJ's determination that the claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court 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). When 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 to 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. Relevant Medical Evidence

Plaintiff sought treatment from Drs. Raissa Hill and San Tso on February 4, 2005, for complaints of pain in his right leg from which he had suffered for the past month. (Doc. 10-8 at 61.) Dr. Tso ordered an x-ray of Plaintiff's right knee and MRI of Plaintiff's lumbar spine. (Id. at 72, 74.) Dr. Hamid Javaherian determined Plaintiff had bulging discs "with association spondylotic changes" at the L2-3, L3-4, L4-5, and L5-S1 levels. (Id. at 72.) In addition, Plaintiff had central canal stenosis at the L2-3 and L4-5 levels, and disc desiccation at the L3-4, L4-5 and L5-SI levels. (Id. ) According to Dr. Javaherian, Plaintiff had "[m]ultilevel foraminal stenosis as a result of degenerative changes." (Id. at 73.) Dr. Geroge Khoury determined the x-ray showed Plaintiff had "[m]inimal medial joint compartment narrowing" and a possible joint effusion in his knee. (Id. at 74.)

In February 2005, Plaintiff visited the Orthopedic Clinic of the San Joaquin General Hospital regarding the pain in his low back and right leg. (Doc. 10-15 at 3.) Dr. Stephen Gaal noted Plaintiff said his pain was a 3 out of 10, with a 10 being the "worse possible pain." (Id. at 3, 4.) Dr. Gaal recommended Plaintiff continue with conservative treatment. (Id. at 3.)

Dr. Hill referred Plaintiff to Dr. F. Karl Gregorius, who examined Plaintiff for the first time on March 23, 2005. (Doc. 10-8 at 5.) Dr. Gregorius observed that the MRI of Plaintiff's lumbar spine showed "a congenitally narrowed spinal canal with short pedicles a "superimposed herniated disc at the L4-5 segment with lateral recess narrowing bilaterally, " and "severe foraminal stenosis at the L5-S1 segment." (Id. ) Plaintiff reported his pain was "a 4/10 and localized to his lumbar spine, " and "[h]e no longer [had] right leg pain." (Id. ) Dr. Gregorius found Plaintiff had "a full range of motion" in his cervical spine and could "flex the lumbar spine to 100°and extend to °." (Id. ) Plaintiff's straight leg raising test results were negative. (Id. )

On May 4, 2005, Dr. Gregorius noted Plaintiff reported having "no pain in the leg any longer." (Doc. 10-8 at 4.) According to Dr. Gregorius, Plaintiff said he had "a constant, burning sensation in the lumbar spine and right paraspinous muscles [were] burning." (Id. ) Plaintiff also reported "burning in the shoulders, on both sides" and his "right great toe [was] dead and numb." (Id. ) Dr. Gregorius noted Plaintiff had gone to physical therapy, and Dr. Gregorius was "hopeful that his lumbar spine burning pain will improve." (Id. ) Dr. Gregorius determined Plaintiff was able to flex and extend his lumbar spine "with minimal discomfort." (Id. ) Plaintiff's straight leg raising test results were negative. (Id. ) Dr. Gregorius believed Plaintiff should "look for another line of work" because he could not "go back to lifting, bending, and stooping." (Id. )

On August 31, 2005, Dr. Gregorius observed Plaintiff was walking "with an antalgic gait." (Doc. 10-8 at 6.) Plaintiff "continu[ed] to complain of dysesthesias in his right great toe, weakness in the right great toe, and an inability to work." (Id. ) He reported having "a tingling sensation down the right leg all the time." (Id. ) Dr. Gregorius "discussed the possibility of surgery" with Plaintiff, who said he was not interested and that he "ha[d] seen a consultant in Mexico who advised him against having surgery." (Id. ) Plaintiff's "[s]traight leg raising [was] positive on the right and negative on the left." (Id. ) Dr. Gregorius opined that because Plaintiff did not want to consider surgery he was "permanently, totally, and completely disabled from any occupation." (Id. )

Dr. Nathan Pliam performed an orthopedic evaluation on April 26, 2007. (Doc. 10-8 at 9.) Plaintiff told Dr. Pliam he "had problems with his low back since 2004, " which was injured when he was "doing heavy lifting" at work. (Id. ) Dr. Pliam observed that Plaintiff was able to sit and stand "with normal posture" and "arise from a chair without difficulty." (Id. at 10.) According to Dr. Pliam, Plaintiff walked normally and could "walk on his toes slowly with some apparent discomfort." (Id. at 11.) Plaintiff said he was "unable to walk on his heels due to heel pain." (Id. ) Dr. Pliam determined Plaintiff's range of motion was normal in his cervical spine, but limited in his lumbosacral spine. (Id. ) In addition, Dr. Pliam determined Plaintiff had "diffuse tenderness about the lower lumbar spine and lumbosacral junction, " and "mild to moderate muscle spasm about the right paraspinus musculature in the lumbar region." (Id. ) The "[s]traight leg raise [was] negative, bilaterally." (Id. ) Dr. Pliam found "no weakness" in Plaintiff's upper and lower extremities. (Id. at 12.) Dr. Pliam concluded:

The claimant should be limited to lifting 20 pounds, occasionally and 10 pounds respectively. Bending should be limited to occasional. Sitting should be limited to two hours continuously for a cumulative total of 6 hours per day. Standing in one place should be limited to 30 minutes, continuously for a cumulative total of 20 hours per day. The claimant should be ...

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