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Dimartini v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. California

August 4, 2016

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


          Hon. Gonzalo P. Curiel United States District Judge


         Plaintiff Shelley L. Dimartini (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying Plaintiff’s application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J. (“Pl. Mot.”), ECF No. 13.) Plaintiff requests the Court to reverse the Commissioner’s final decision and order the payment of benefits, or in the alternative, remand the decision to the Social Security Administration for a new hearing. (Id. 1.) Plaintiff and the Commissioner have filed a Motion and Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment, respectively. (Pl. Mot., ECF No. 13; Def.’s Cross Mot. Summ. J. (“Def. Mot.”), ECF No. 14.) For the reasons discussed below, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and GRANTS Defendant’s Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment.


         On March 25, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits alleging disability beginning March 20, 2011[2] due to “[b]ack, arm, shoulders, arthritis, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and high cholesterol.” (Administrative Record (“AR”) 113, ECF No. 10-4.)[3] The claim was denied on July 22, 2011, (id.) and upon reconsideration on April 27, 2012. (Id. 126). On July 25, 2013, Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing in San Diego, California. (Id. 27-70.) On August 5, 2013, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not been under a disability since her application was filed and was therefore not entitled to SSI benefits. (Id. 9-16.) On September 17, 2013, Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ’s decision by the Appeals Council. (Id. 5.) The Appeals Council denied review on March 10, 2015, rendering the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. 1.)

         On May 5, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Complaint seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for SSI benefits. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) On August 18, 2015, the Commissioner filed an Answer to the Complaint. (Answer, ECF No. 9.) On October 22, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, (Pl. Mot., ECF No. 13) and Defendant filed a Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment on November 23, 2015 (Def. Mot., ECF No. 14). Neither party filed an opposition. On August 18, 2015, the matter was referred to the Magistrate Judge for a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”). (R&R, ECF No. 11.) However, this Court has decided to address the matter without an R&R.


         Plaintiff, a current resident of Carlsbad, California, was born on June 25, 1950 and was 63 years old at the time of the hearing. (AR 308, ECF No. 10-7.) She is a college graduate with some coursework towards a Master’s degree. (AR 31-32, ECF No. 10-2.) Plaintiff’s last relevant job was as a music teacher in 2003.[4] (Id. 16.) Plaintiff stopped working allegedly due to an injury to her back in July 2003, when an approximately 80 pound amplifier was dropped on her back. (Id. 54.) Plaintiff testified that she is unable to work because she cannot bend, lift, stoop, point to the music, carry a suitcase full of music, or drive to students’ houses. (Id. 32.) She claims that these limitations, when combined with her anxiety, inability to concentrate, and depression, keep her from being able to meet the physical and mental demands of her prior job as a music teacher. (Id. 32, 34, 36.)

         I. Medical Evidence

         A. Plaintiff’s Physical Impairments

         Between January 10, 2011 and June 4, 2013, Plaintiff received medical treatment at Neighborhood Healthcare from Dr. Margaret Chen. (AR 284-300, 311-342, 375-398, ECF No. 10-7.) Dr. Chen primarily treated Plaintiff’s lower back pain, and regularly refilled Plaintiff’s prescription medication. (Id.) In all of Plaintiff’s records, Dr. Chen noted that Plaintiff’s general appearance was well-developed and well-nourished, and that Plaintiff was in no acute distress. (Id.) On May 5, 2011, Plaintiff reported that she had completely taken herself off of Seroquel, and while she was not sleeping very well, she was satisfied with her overall condition. (Id. 335.) On April 2, 2012, Dr. Chen suggested epidural injections for Plaintiff’s lower back pain. (Id. 397-98.) On October 2, 2012, Plaintiff reported being glad to be off of Seroquel because she felt like she was “in a coma while on it.” (Id. 389.) Plaintiff also reported that she was more active and doing yoga, but that her back pain was “a bit more of an issue.” (Id.) Starting January 17, 2013, Plaintiff stopped reporting having back pains. (Id. 381.) On June 4, 2013, Dr. Chen noted in her review of symptoms that Plaintiff denied being in pain. (Id. 375.)

         On July 22, 2011, State Agency medical consultant Dr. Hartman determined that Plaintiff was restricted to lifting and carrying twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. (AR 95, ECF No. 10-3.) He determined that Plaintiff could stand, walk, and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. (Id. 96.) He placed no restrictions on how much Plaintiff could push or pull, and placed no postural restrictions. (Id.)

         On April 11, 2012, Plaintiff underwent an orthopedic evaluation with Dr. Vincente Bernabe at the request of the Department of Social Services. (AR 355-360, ECF No. 10-7.) Dr. Bernabe found that Plaintiff had mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and musculoligamentous strain of the thoracolumbar spine. (Id. 359.) Nonetheless, he concluded that these findings presented only “a very mild disability” to Plaintiff. (Id.) Dr. Bernabe restricted Plaintiff to walking or standing six hours out of an eight hour day and lifting and carrying fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently. (Id. 360.) He placed no restrictions on how much Plaintiff could push or pull, or on the amount of time she could sit. (Id.) He also placed no postural restrictions, such as bending, kneeling, crawling, crouching, and stooping. (Id.)

         B. Plaintiff’s Mental Impairments

         Between December 9, 2010 and May 23, 2013, Plaintiff received mental care at North Coastal Mental Health from psychiatrist Dr. John Donnelly. (AR 279-283, 361-374, ECF No. 10-6.) On May 22, 2012, Plaintiff reported that taking Remeron helped her calm down, but gave conflicting reports; she stated that she did not feel sedated but also that “she was falling into walls because it left her sedated.” (Id. 373.) Plaintiff stated that her mood was “ok, ” but claimed that she was stressed and had difficulties with concentration and following through on tasks. (Id. 373-374.) Dr. Donnelly noted that Plaintiff’s inability to focus may be signs of ADHD. (Id. 374.) On August 31, 2012, Plaintiff reported that she gets about five to six hours of sleep with the use of Ambien, and that her energy level, mood, and concentration have improved. (Id. 369.) On November 9, 2012, Plaintiff complained of receiving harassing letters from “that creep, ” which were causing her anxiety. (Id. 367.) She also complained of low energy levels from insomnia. (Id.) Plaintiff reported that she did yoga and spent her days doing tasks such as reading, watching television, and doing her nails. (Id.) Plaintiff also expressed interest in starting to “volunteer to play piano at places, ” but that transportation was limited. (Id.) On January 3, 2013, Plaintiff reported that she does not feel like going out most of the time, and expressed a desire to become more socially active in the coming year. (Id. 365.) She stated that her appetite and energy level were “ok, ” and that her concentration was getting better. (Id.) Dr. Donnelly described Plaintiff’s state as a “continued sense of unhappiness, ” and discussed the option of seeing a therapist. (Id. 366.) On April 4, 2013, Plaintiff reported that she started seeing a therapist, and that her mood was “ok.” (Id. 363.) On May 23, 2013, Plaintiff reported that her therapist left the clinic and requested to see another therapist. (Id. 361-362.) Plaintiff stated that she had some element of depression, but that it was not as severe as it was in the past. (Id. 361.) In almost all progress notes, Dr. Donnelly noted that Plaintiff was alert, attentive, calm, cooperative, made direct eye contact, had fine grooming, and had coherent and organized speech, but that her affect was restricted. (Id. 280, 361, 363, 365, 368, 369, 371, 373.) He also noted throughout his reports that Plaintiff’s depression was recurrent and in partial remission, and that her alcohol and cocaine dependence were on full sustained remission. (Id.) In all his notes, Dr. Donnelly diagnosed Plaintiff with a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) of 50.[5] (Id. 281, 362, 364, 366, 368, 370, 372, 374.)

         On March 27, 2012, Plaintiff received a medical status examination at Scripps Memorial Hospital from psychiatrist Dr. Jaga Nath Glassman at the request of the Department of Social Services. (AR 349-53, ECF No. 10-7.) Dr. Glassman noted that Plaintiff arrived on time to her appointment, appeared well-developed and well-nourished, was mildly unkempt in her physical presentation, had clothes that appeared clean, and had “nice makeup” on, including fingernail and toenail polish. (Id. 351-352.) Dr. Glassman also noted that Plaintiff was “well-engaged with the examiner, making and maintaining good eye contact, ” and was “cooperative, polite, and respectful in her attitude and demeanor.” (Id. 352.) Further, he observed that Plaintiff’s mood was generally “sour” and depressed with limited range in affect, but that her thought processes were “coherent, relevant, and goal-directed, ” with “no evidence of any psychotic symptoms.” (Id.) Dr. Glassman determined that Plaintiff was able to follow all instructions, had socially appropriate behavior, presented “average to above-average intellectual functioning, ” was “alert and oriented, ” performed well on formal memory and concentration testing, and performed math calculations correctly. (Id.) Dr. Glassman diagnosed Plaintiff with: (1) “Pain Disorder with Medical and Psychological Factors. Dysthymic Disorder”; (2) “Dysfunctional Personality Features, Probably Borderline Personality Disorder”; and (3) “Musculoskeletal/Orthopedic Problems.” (Id.) He rated ...

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