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Figueroa v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California, Western Division

July 15, 2015

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


GAIL J. STANDISH, Magistrate Judge.


Plaintiff Liliana Figueroa ("Plaintiff") filed a complaint seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income. The parties filed consents to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge, and motions addressing disputed issues in the case (Brief With Points and Authorities in Support of Plaintiff's Complaint ("Plaintiff's Brief") and Defendant's Brief in Opposition to Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Complaint ("Defendant's Brief")). The Court has taken the motions under submission without oral argument.


Plaintiff asserts disability since April 14, 2004, based primarily on rheumatoid arthritis, disc and bone disease, lower hip deterioration, fibromyalgia, anemia, an ulcer, depression, anxiety, memory loss, and joint, neck and left arm pain. (Administrative Record ("AR") 13, 124, 163, 165). The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") determined that Plaintiff has severe degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, status post anterior metallic fusion at C6-C7 with bony interbody fusion, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and a history of fibromyalgia diagnosis. (AR 11). The ALJ found that, notwithstanding these severe impairments, Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a limited range of light work, [1] and that a person with Plaintiff's RFC could perform work as an inspector and hand packager, assembler, and cleaner. (AR 13, 15-16). In denying benefits, the ALJ deemed Plaintiff's subjective complaints less than fully credible. (AR 13-15). The Appeals Council denied review. (AR 1-3).


Under 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g), the Court reviews the Administration's decision to determine if: (1) the Administration's findings are supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the Administration used correct legal standards. See Carmickle v. Commissioner, 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. 2008); Hoopai v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 1071, 1074 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (citation and quotations omitted); see also Hoopai, 499 F.3d at 1074.


Plaintiff contends that the ALJ: (1) erred in the assessment of Plaintiff's credibility; and (2) erred in failing to develop the record further. (Plaintiff's Brief at 2-10). As set forth below, the Court agrees with Plaintiff, in part, and remands the matter for further proceedings.

A. Plaintiff's Credibility

Plaintiff alleges that she suffers from significant pain and limitations due to her impairments. (AR 29-44). She stated that she has difficulty walking and standing, and needs help with activities such as cooking, washing dishes, cleaning, sweeping, and mopping. (AR 40-42).

The ALJ found Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony not fully credible. (AR 13-14). The ALJ noted that although Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of Plaintiff's alleged symptoms, Plaintiff's allegations concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were not credible to the extent alleged. (AR 13-14). As there was no affirmative evidence of malingering in this case, the ALJ was obligated to provide "specific, clear and convincing reasons" for rejecting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281 (9th Cir. 1996); see also Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998) ("Unless there is affirmative evidence showing that the claimant is malingering, the Commissioner's reasons for rejecting the claimant's testimony must be clear and convincing.'" (quoting Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 834 (9th Cir. 1995)).

The ALJ offered only one reason for discounting Plaintiff's testimony: "the objective medical evidence does not support [Plaintiff's] allegations of severity of pain and physical impairments." (AR 14-15). However, the lack of corroborating medical evidence, standing alone, was not a sufficient reason to discount Plaintiff's credibility because the record contained objective medical evidence of underlying impairments that could reasonably be expected to produce some degree of Plaintiff's alleged symptoms. (AR 11, 14, 182-83, 192-204, 217, 219-220, 225, 238, 275, 297, 303-04); see Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 341, 345 (9th Cir. 1991) ("[O]nce the claimant produces objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment, an adjudicator may not reject a claimant's subjective complaints based solely on a lack of objective medical evidence to fully corroborate the alleged severity of pain."); see also Light v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 119 F.3d 789, 792 (9th Cir. 1997) ("claimant need not present clinical or diagnostic evidence to support the severity of his pain" (citation omitted)); Reddick, 157 F.3d at 722; Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1281-82 & n. 2.

Defendant asserts that the ALJ discussed two other valid reasons for the adverse credibility determination: Plaintiff's treatment history was "inconsistent with the disabling level of impairments" alleged, and "Plaintiff testified at the hearing that she had only recently begun taking pain medication again." (Defendant's Brief at 7 (citing AR 11-12, 29)); see Bunnell, 947 F.2d at 345 (ALJ may consider lack of objective medical evidence to corroborate a claimant's subjective symptoms so long as it is not the only ...

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