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Zaharides v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. California

April 15, 2015

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


JENNIFER L. THURSTON, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Christopher Zaharides asserts he is entitled to disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff argues the administrative law judge ("ALJ") erred in evaluating the credibility of his subjective complaints. Because the ALJ applied carried his duty to identify clear and convincing reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's credibility, the ALJ's decision is AFFIRMED.

I. Background

Plaintiff filed applications for benefits on March 3, 2011, alleging disability beginning June 6, 2009. (Doc. 12-3 at 16.) The Social Security Administration denied his claims initially and upon reconsideration. (Doc. 12-5 at 2-15.) Plaintiff requested a hearing, and testified before an ALJ on September 14, 2012. (Doc. 12-3 at 37.) The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act, and issued an order denying benefits on February 22, 2013. ( Id. at 13.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. ( Id. at 6-8.) Therefore, the ALJ's determination became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner").

II. Standard of Review

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).

III. Disability Benefits

To qualify for benefits under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish she 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).

IV. Administrative Determination

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.

A. Relevant Medical Evidence

Dr. Kalyani Shah performed a gastroenterology consultation on July 15, 2008. (Doc. 12-8 at 2.) He noted Plaintiff had been complaining of "lower abdominal pain for one month or so, " and a CT scan performed at an emergency room showed diverticulitis. ( Id. ) In June 2009, Plaintiff was admitted to Community Regional Medical Center for "an elective sigmoid colectomy" to treat his recurrent diverticulitis. ( Id. at 26.) At the hospital prior to surgery, Plaintiff reported he had "a previous seizure disorder, " but "[h]is last seizure was 4-5 years ago" and he no longer took medication for it. ( Id. at 46.) Plaintiff reported he "still ha[d] an occasional absence seizure but ha[d] not had a grand mal seizure for approximately five years." ( Id. ) After the surgery, Plaintiff was discharged with the instructions to go "on a low residual diet" and to "not lift anything over 10 pounds for 6 weeks." ( Id. at 27.) At post-operative follow-ups in August and October 2009, Plaintiff was "doing well." ( Id. at 19-20.)

In February 2010, Plaintiff reported he had twisted his left knee and felt moderate to severe pain. (Doc. 12-8 at 23.) An x-ray showed "slight narrowing of the medial compartment of the femoral-tibial joint space" and "early subchondral sclerosis along the medial tibial plateau." ( Id. at 25.) There was "[n]o evidence of acute bony injury, " but Plaintiff had "[v]ery early degenerative changes. ( Id. ) Plaintiff continued to report severe pain, and an MRI taken in April 2010 showed a "[h]orizontal cleavage tear of the posterior horn of the medial meniscus with extension to the body of the medial meniscus." ( Id. at 84-85.)

In April 2010, Plaintiff reported "2 events... described as whole body shaking and loss of consciousness lasting about 1 minute." (Doc. 12-8 at 22.) Plaintiff had an electroencephalogram that Dr. Perminder Bhatia determined was abnormal and showed "possible discharging focus" in Plaintiff's right temporal lobe. ( Id. )

Plaintiff visited the Sammarian Medical Group to establish care on April 27, 2010. (Doc. 12-8 at 115-18.) Plaintiff said "he was diagnosed with epilepsy as a teenager and... had seizures on and off since then." ( Id. at 118.) According to Plaintiff, he was on medication "for many years, " but had "not taken it for more than 5 yrs now because he ha[d] not seen an MD to refill it." ( Id. )

On May 13, 2010, Plaintiff had an MRI on his left shoulder after reporting "shoulder pain for months." (Doc. 12-8 at 87.) The MRI showed there were "no significant degenerative changes, " but Plaintiff had a "[p]artial articular surface tear of the supraspinatus tendon." ( Id. )

In June 2010, Plaintiff reported that he suffered a recent injury to his right knee. (Doc. 12-9 at 48.) Dr. Diana Artenian determined an x-ray of Plaintiff's right knee showed he had "[l]arge suprapatellar joint effusion" and "small lesions in the proximal tibial and fibular diametaphsis suggestive of a ...

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