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Powers v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 20, 2016

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



         Plaintiff Randall Gene Powers ("Plaintiff") seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted without oral argument to the Honorable Erica P. Grosjean, United States Magistrate Judge.[1] Upon a review of the administrative record, the Court finds the ALJ's decision is not free of clear legal error and supported by substantial evidence. The case is thus remanded to the agency for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB in December 2010, alleging a disability onset date of August 14, 2010. His application was denied initially in April 2011 and on reconsideration in September 2011. AR 115; 121.[2] A hearing was conducted before Administrative Law Judge Jeffrey Hatfield ("ALJ") on September 26, 2012 and a second hearing occurred on June 26, 2013. AR 36-57; 58-89. On July 11, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 17-30. Plaintiff filed an appeal of the decision with the Appeals Council. AR 12-16. The Appeals Council denied his appeal, rendering the order the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1-7.

         Plaintiff now challenges that decision, arguing that the ALJ failed to articulate clear and convincing reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's testimony. (Doc. 14, pgs. 8-16). Plaintiff argues that the Court should reverse and award benefits to Plaintiff. In the alternative, Plaintiff contends, the case should be remanded for further administrative proceedings. In opposition, Defendant argues that the ALJ provided valid reasons for finding Plaintiff not entirely credible, which were supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 22, pgs. 6-15).

         A. Plaintiff's Testimony

         Two hearings were held in Long Beach, California. Plaintiff appeared via video from Palmdale and was represented by his attorney Brian Reed at both hearings. AR 36; 58. Plaintiff and a vocational expert, Ronald Hatakeyama, testified at the first hearing. AR 38-57. Plaintiff and a vocational expert, Howard Goldsbarb, testified at the second hearing. AR 38. Plaintiff was 49 years old at the time of the first hearing and 50 years old at the time of the second hearing. AR 41; 62. He lives with his girlfriend and 11-year-old daughter. AR 64. He has a high school diploma. AR 63. Plaintiff last worked in June 2010 at Harbor Freight Tools as a general manager. AR 64-65.

         At the September 2012 hearing, Plaintiff testified that he did not have health care. His primary source for prescriptions was TZI Buddhist Monastery, a health care provider that came to his town every quarter. AR 67. He had recently found a doctor at the Antelope Valley Clinic he planned to begin seeing. AR 67. Plaintiff testified that arthritis flare-ups make it impossible to maintain employment as he would be unable to work 3-4 days at a time 2-3 times per month. AR 68-69. He testified of arthritis primarily in his knees, ankles, and wrists, which results in periodic flare-ups that make it difficult to stand and walk. AR 67-68. When the swelling gets bad, he takes Prednisone and uses crutches until the swelling goes down. AR 67-68. Plaintiff was initially diagnosed with arthritis in 2006 in his upper extremities. AR 71; 73. It is difficult for him to close his hands into a fist and "it feels like [a] balloon pushing back out." AR 73. He reports that his hands are swollen 60-80% of the time, which makes it difficult to pick things up and exert pressure. AR 73-74. He suffers pain and swelling in his knee about 80% of the time with flare-ups 2-3 times per month. AR 74-75. Plaintiff reports that his ankles are swollen 90% of the time, which causes pain when he walks. AR 75. He also has pain in his hip. AR 75-76. He cannot sit for more than one hour due to numbness in his leg. AR 79. He takes nitrates due to tightness in his chest. AR 68. He has shortness of breath when walking 5-20 paces, which he attributes in part to his weight, a circulatory problem, and a possible back problem. AR 68.

         Plaintiff can bathe himself without assistance, get dressed, prepare simple meals, and do simple chores such as washing dishes, but these tasks take much longer than they used to and require periodic rest. AR 69-70; 77. He can go grocery shopping using an electric cart, but it takes him about four hours and he has to lie down afterward. AR 69-70. He wakes up every two hours at night to use the restroom and increase circulation in his legs. AR 77-78. He takes about an hour long nap in the afternoon. AR 78.

         In May 2012, Plaintiff suffered a mild heart attack. AR 72. His fatigue has worsened since the heart attack. AR 76. Plaintiff takes medication to treat high blood pressure and cholesterol. AR 72-73. He still has hypertension, despite taking medication. AR 72. He has taken Methotrexate to treat his arthritis since 2006, which weakens his immune system and requires that he be screened for kidney and liver damage every two months. AR 77. Plaintiff testified he is unable to perform his past work because he cannot walk, stand, or sit six hours out of an eight-hour day. AR 78.

         At the supplemental hearing in June 2013, Plaintiff testified he had stopped driving more than about a mile as he is unable to put his foot down hard on the pedal. AR 42. He reported his flare-ups have increased to four or five times a month causing him to use his crutches more. AR 44. He was recently approved for Medi-Cal and has been treated more frequently, particularly at the emergency room and Antelope Valley Hospital. AR 41; 44. He reports going to the emergency room about twice a month due to swelling in his ankles, knees, both wrists, and fingers that makes it impossible to function, walk, or sleep. AR 45-46. He reported his pain being 10 out of 10, which makes it difficult to concentrate, walk, and grip things with his hands. AR 46-48. He was treated with pain medication, which makes him sleepy, and steroids. AR 45-46.

         B. Medical Record

         The entire medical record was reviewed by the Court. However, only evidence that relates to the issues raised in this appeal is summarized below.

         i. Medical History

         Plaintiff has a history of rheumatoid arthritis. See e.g., AR 432. He was able to continue working while on Methotrexate. AR 432. However, Plaintiff could no longer afford Methotrexate to treat the arthritis after he lost his job. AR 432. Plaintiff takes prednisone when his arthritis flares up. AR 432.

         ii. Consultative Examiner, Dean Chiang, M.D.

         Plaintiff had a comprehensive internal medicine evaluation by Dr. Chiang on April 9, 2011. AR 330-334. Dr. Chiang observed Plaintiff to be a well-developed, well-nourished individual who appears to be muscular. AR 331. Plaintiff walked on his own volition with a normal gait, was able to sit comfortably, take his shoes on and off, retie his shoelaces, and get on and off the examination table by himself. AR 331. Examination of his joints revealed no signs of active synovitis. AR 331.

         Dr. Chiang diagnosed Plaintiff as having rheumatoid arthritis and chronic back pain with intermittent sciatica. AR 333. Dr. Chiang opined that Plaintiff would be able to stand and walk for up to four hours in an eight-hour day with no sitting limitations as long as appropriate breaks were given. AR 333. He further opined Plaintiff can lift and carry without restrictions. However, when Plaintiff's pain flares, he would be limited to lifting and carrying 10 pounds and may need an assistive device for ambulating. AR 333-334. He limited Plaintiff to occasional postural activities and opined he may have some manipulative limitations. AR 334.

         iii. Consultative Examiner, Jay Dhiman, M.D.

         Plaintiff had a complete internal medicine evaluation by Dr. Dhiman on January 16, 2013. AR 495-501. Plaintiff was well-developed, well-nourished, overweight, and did not seem to be in any pain. His station and gait were normal. AR 497. He is right hand dominant with 20/20/20 grip strength in his right hand and 15/15/15 in his left. AR 497. His neck was supple without adenopathy or jugular venous distention. The range of motion of the neck on flexion was 0-45 degrees, extension 0-30 degrees, lateral flexion 0-30 degrees, and lateral rotation 0-60 degrees. AR 498. His chest was not tender, his breath sounds were symmetric, and he had regular heart rate and rhythm. AR 498. There was no tenderness to palpation in the midline or paraspinal areas, negative straight leg raising at 90 degrees, and full range of motion of the back within normal limits. AR 498. He had mild generalized tenderness of the wrists without any swelling. AR 499. He had tenderness of the fingers with some swelling. AR 499. He had normal range of motion in his hands. AR 499. His range of motion in hips and knees was grossly normal bilaterally. AR 499. There was no swelling in his knees. AR 500. His knees were without effusion, had tenderness in the lateral and medial joint lines without any crepitation, and no mediolateral or anteroposterior instability. AR 499. His range of motion ...

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