United States District Court, E.D. California
ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFF'S SOCIAL SECURITY COMPLAINT
GARY S. AUSTIN, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Julyunda Davis ("Plaintiff") filed this action seeking judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or "Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's application for benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (ECF No. 1). The matter is pending before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted without oral argument to the Honorable Gary S. Austin, United States Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff applied for Social Security benefits due to impairments which included carpal tunnel syndrome, diabetes, right knee derangement, depressive disorder, and impaired cognitive functioning. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Social Security appeal shall be denied.
II. SUMMARY OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS
A. Procedural History
On March 26, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, and, on April 8, 2010, she filed an application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (AR 140-153). Plaintiff alleged that her disability began on September 25, 2009. (AR 140). Plaintiff's initial application was denied on October 4, 2010, and her application for reconsideration was denied on January 21, 2011. (AR 63-66, 71-76). On February 1, 2011, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (AR 77-78).
On March 12, 2012, a hearing took place before Administrative Law Judge Sanya Hill-Maxion ("the ALJ"). (AR 30-58). On April 2, 2012, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff is not disabled. (AR 20-29). Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, which denied review on May 31, 2013. (AR 2-4).
B. Hearing Testimony
i. Medical Expert
Dr. Chukwuemeka Efobi testified as a medical expert at the hearing. Dr. Efobi testified that Plaintiff's condition does not meet or equal any mental listing. (AR 40). Dr. Efobi found that Plaintiff was mildly limited in social functioning; mildly limited in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace; not limited in her activities of daily living; and has not had repeated episodes of decompensation of extended duration. (AR 41). Dr. Efobi specifically testified that there was not enough evidence for him to be able to opine as to whether Plaintiff met or equaled Listing 12.05C (mental retardation); he stated that Plaintiff's seventh, eighth, and ninth grade report card was not relevant in this regard. (AR 36-39).
Plaintiff testified at the hearing and was represented by counsel. Plaintiff attended school through the ninth grade, but dropped out during ninth grade for a reason that she does not remember. (AR 42). Plaintiff worked as a home care provider and then for approximately three months in 2009, she worked as a babysitter. (AR 42-43). She collected unemployment and her children helped her out during the times that she was not working. (AR 43).
Plaintiff is unable to work because of pain and swelling in both hands and her right knee. (AR 43-44). Plaintiff has a shooting pain through her wrist and fingers, swelling, and numbness. (AR 44). Plaintiff wears wrist braces, but she is unable to pick things up with her hands, such as dishes, and she has trouble buttoning and zippering her clothing. (AR 44-45). Plaintiff wears a knee brace, but she has a shooting pain in her right knee and swelling. (AR 45). Plaintiff also complained of pain in her right hip, feet, shoulders, and elbow. (AR 45). Plaintiff stated that she has swelling and a burning pain in her feet when she is standing, and that she can only stand for approximately ten or fifteen minutes before she has to sit. (AR 45-46). Plaintiff can walk for approximately fifteen minutes before she has to sit. (AR 46). She is able to sit for about ten to fifteen minutes before her knee starts to throb and she feels pressure in her hip, and has to stand up. (AR 46). Plaintiff estimates that she can only lift less than five pounds. (AR 46).
Plaintiff lives with her daughter and her two grandchildren. (AR 47). She does not have a driver's license. (AR 49). Plaintiff watches television for approximately nine hours a day. (AR 48). Her daughter gives her food when she comes home from work. (AR 47-48). Plaintiff puts her hands in warm water, which makes them feel better. (AR 48). Plaintiff ices and heats her knee. (AR 49). She spends time with her grandchildren when they get home from school. (AR 50). Plaintiff is unable to help with the household chores because it hurts to do anything. (AR 47). She is unable to do laundry or dusting. (AR 48). She is able to microwave food. (AR 48). She does not do grocery shopping or any other shopping. (AR 49).
Plaintiff feels depressed because she is not able to do anything and she used to be a lot more active. (AR 51).
iii. Vocational Expert
A vocational expert (VE), Joel Greenberg, also testified at the hearing. (AR 52-57). The VE classified Plaintiff's past work history from 1999 to 2008 as a home attendant, medium exertional level, SVP 3, but going up to the heavy exertional level. (AR 52). The VE classified Plaintiff's work history during 2009 as a babysitter, medium exertional level, and SVP 3. (AR 53). The ALJ presented a hypothetical of an individual of Plaintiff's same age, education, and work background who is able to push, pull, lift, and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; sit and stand six hours in an eight hour work day; do posturals occasionally except for frequently balance and never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; has no restrictions for gross manipulative movements and can frequently do fine manipulation; must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as moving machinery and heights; is able to understand and remember simple one to two step tasks; is able to maintain concentration, persistence and pace for two hour increments; cannot interact appropriately with supervisors, coworkers and the general public; and cannot adapt to routine workplace changes and hazards. (AR 53). The VE opined that this individual would not be able to perform Plaintiff's past relevant work. (AR 54). However, this individual would be able to work as a small product assembler I, Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) 727.687-054, light, SVP 2, with 1, 400 jobs in Fresno, 20, 000 jobs in California, and 230, 000 jobs in the national economy and final inspector of electrical equipment, light, SVP 2, 650 jobs in Fresno, 47, 000 jobs in California, and 410, 000 jobs in the national economy. (AR 54)
The ALJ presented a second hypothetical of an individual who is the same as in hypothetical one, except the individual is limited occasionally with regard to bilateral gross manipulation and cannot do repetitive fine fingering and keyboarding. (AR 54-55). The VE opined that this individual would not be able to perform Plaintiff's past work. (AR 55). This individual would be able to be a callout operator, sedentary, SVP 2, with 60 jobs in Fresno, 2, 500 jobs in California, and 53, 000 in the national economy and a storage facility clerk, light, SVP 2, with approximately 320 jobs in Fresno, 14, 000 in California, and 82, 000 jobs in the national economy that fit the hypothetical. (AR 55).
The ALJ presented a third hypothetical of an individual who is the same as in hypothetical one, except the individual is able to occasionally do forceful grasping such as clenching a wrench, do frequent simple grasping and basic handling required for light work, and do frequent, but not constant, fingering with either hand. (AR 56). This individual would be able to perform the same jobs as the VE stated the person in the second hypothetical could perform. (AR 56).
The ALJ presented a fourth hypothetical by adding additional limitations, i.e., a moderate limitation in the ability to maintain concentration, attention, persistence, and pace; a moderate limitation in the ability to adapt to changes in routine work related settings; and a moderate limitation in the ability to interact with the public, supervisors, and coworkers. (AR 57). The VE opined that an individual with these limitations could perform no work in the national or regional economy. (AR 57).
C. The Disability Determination Standard and Process
To qualify for benefits, a claimant must establish that he or she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(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. § 423(d)(2)-(3), 1382c(a)(3)(B), (D).
The Social Security Regulations set out a sequential five-step evaluation process to be used for evaluating a claimant's alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 and 416.920; Batson v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 359 F.3d 1190, 1194 (9th Cir. 2004). The ALJ proceeds step by step in order and stops upon reaching a dispositive finding that the claimant is or is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4). The ALJ must consider objective medical evidence and opinion testimony. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527, 404.1529, 416.927, and 416.929.
Specifically, the ALJ is required to determine: (1) whether a claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of alleged disability, (2) whether the claimant had medically-determinable "severe" impairments,  (3) whether these impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, (4) whether the claimant retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform his past relevant work,  and (5) whether the claimant had the ability to perform other jobs existing in significant numbers at the regional and national level. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f) and 416.920(a)-(f).
The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 25, 2009, the date specified in her application. (AR 22). Further, the ALJ identified bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome of hands and wrists, bilateral extensor tendonitis of hands and wrists, arthritis of the right knee, and a depressive disorder as severe impairments. (AR 22). The ALJ found that Plaintiff's hypertension and diabetes mellitus are well controlled. (AR 22). Nonetheless, the ALJ determined that the severity of Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or exceed any of the listed impairments. (AR 22-23).
Based on a review of the entire record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that she can push, pull, lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and walk six hours in an eight-hour workday, sit six hours in an eight hour workday, occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs, and frequently balance and finger. (AR 24). In addition, the ALJ found that Plaintiff can never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, engage in frequent forceful grasping (such as clenching a wrench), do frequent simple grasping or basic handling required for light work using either hand, and she must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as machinery, heights, etc. (AR 24). For mental RFC, Plaintiff is able to understand and remember simple one-to-two step instructions, is able to maintain concentration, persistence and pace for two-hour increments, is able to interact appropriately with supervisors, co-workers and the public, and is able to adapt to routine workplace changes and hazards. (AR 24).
The ALJ found that the Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (AR 28). The ALJ found that the Plaintiff has a limited education and is able to communicate in English. (AR 28). When the ALJ considered the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, she found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff can ...