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Parks v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 7, 2017

ETHEL PARKS, Plaintiff
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant



         Plaintiff Ethel Parks (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. The matter is before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted without oral argument to Magistrate Judge Barbara A. McAuliffe.[1] Having carefully considered the parties' briefs, as well as the entire record in this case, the Court finds the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) is not supported by substantial evidence in the record and is not based upon proper legal standards. Accordingly, the ALJ's decision is REVERSED and the case REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this Order.


         On December 3, 2012, Plaintiff filed her current application for DIB alleging disability beginning January 18, 2012. AR 16, 150-153. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. AR 95-99, 101-106. Subsequently, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Following a hearing, ALJ Evangelina Hernandez issued a decision on April 11, 2014 denying benefits. AR 17-26. Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council denied, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 6-9. This appeal followed.


         Plaintiff asserts that she became unable to work due to degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, osteoarthritis of the knee, right knee meniscal tear post-surgery, malignant neoplasm of the skin, depression, anxiety and complex regional pain syndrome (“CRPS”), also known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome (“RSDS” or “RSD”). (Doc. 19 at 3).

         Hearing Testimony

         At the March 2014 hearing, Plaintiff testified that she believed she could not work because of severe pain in her lower extremities. AR 34-35. She testified that she had knee pain despite surgery. AR 35. She estimated that, with medication, her pain was 8/10, and that she took medication daily. AR 35. Her pain, she claimed, was unbearable if she did not take medication. AR 36. Plaintiff testified that she woke up with pain of 8 and spent the day between 8 and 10. AR 36. She testified that she took short walks with a cane for around 200 feet before needing to take a 10-minute break. AR 36-37. She said she had occasional swelling but it was usually pain. AR 37. Plaintiff also testified that she experienced low back pain, which was a 5 or 6 out of 10. AR 37.

         When asked about her daily activities, Plaintiff testified she could shower by herself. AR 55. She testified that she elevated her leg to hip level when sitting, around 80% of the time. AR 57. Plaintiff testified that she also spent time sitting outside and resting, and playing games on her phone. AR 40. She said she watched some television, but nothing lengthy because of the amount of time she would have to sit. AR 40. Plaintiff testified she could sit for 15 minutes at a time. AR 40-41. Plaintiff estimated she could stand for about 10 minutes at a time. AR 41-42. She testified that she had difficulty sleeping. AR 41. Splitting tasks with her roommate, Plaintiff testified that she did her “portion” of cooking and cleaning, and would prepare simple meals (cereal, a sandwich, something microwaved). AR 41. Plaintiff however does not vacuum. She also testified that she stopped driving because of knee pain, and relied on family and friends for rides. AR 44-45.

         When asked about her mental impairments, Plaintiff testified that she experienced anxiety attacks in a crowd or in loud places. AR 38. During such attacks, she experiences shortness of breath, excitability, irritability, intolerance, and impatience, and that the attacks lasted 1 to 4 hours. AR 38. Plaintiff said she experienced a couple of anxiety attacks per week, with more during stressful times, including that she was having one during the hearing. AR 38-39. Plaintiff also experience depression, which she testified had increased because of her physical condition. AR 50. She also testified that she had problems with short-term memory such as forgetting to take pills. AR 43.

         When asked about her abilities despite her impairments, Plaintiff testified that could bend at the waist with difficulty, could not kneel, had difficulty using ladders and stairs, and did not do stairs or inclines/declines. AR 48. She said she could use her left but not right foot for foot controls. AR 48. Plaintiff believed she could lift up to 10 pounds. AR 49.

         Following Plaintiff's testimony, the ALJ elicited testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”). AR 53-55. In response to a hypothetical posed by the ALJ, the VE testified that an individual of the same age, education and work background as Plaintiff who could do sedentary work, with no right leg foot controls, never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, occasionally climb ramps or stairs, and occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, or crawl, could not perform Plaintiff's past work as a real estate appraiser but would have transferable skills to semiskilled clerical type jobs such as receptionist and typist. AR 53-55.

         Medical Record

         The entire medical record was reviewed by the Court. AR 222-908. The medical evidence will be referenced below as necessary to this Court's decision.


         Using the Social Security Administration's five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not meet the disability standard. AR 16-26. The ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis of the knee, degenerative disc disease, malignant neoplasm of the skin, depression, and anxiety. AR 18. Nonetheless, the ALJ determined that the severity of the Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or exceed any of the listed impairments individually or in combination.

         Based on a review of the entire record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a wide range of sedentary work except Plaintiff is precluded from work requiring operation of foot controls with her right lower extremity. Plaintiff is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, but is able to occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She is able to occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. Plaintiff must avoid exposure to extreme cold and heat, and avoid all hazardous machinery. She is limited to work requiring only occasional interaction with co-workers and the public. AR 19. The ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work, but that there were jobs that ...

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