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Contreras v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 15, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.




         Plaintiff Leticia Contreras (“Plaintiff”), appearing pro se, seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under 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 Magistrate Judge Barbara A. McAuliffe. Having considered the moving papers and the Court's file, the Court finds the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to be supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and based upon proper legal standards. Accordingly, this Court affirms the agency's determination to deny benefits.


         A. Overview of the Administrative Proceedings

         This is Plaintiff's second claim for Social Security benefits. Plaintiff filed prior applications for DIB and SSI payments, which were denied on October 13, 2011. AR 148, 166, 385-94. Plaintiff did not appeal the denial. AR 148, 166. On January 31, 2012, Plaintiff subsequently filed the instant applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning January 9, 2012, due to injuries to her neck, back, knee, and right foot, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, headaches, early signs of carpal tunnel, and nerve damage. AR 395-406, 455. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on May 29, 2012 (AR 147-201), and upon reconsideration on January 17, 2013. AR 216-70. After an administrative hearing at which Plaintiff was represented by an attorney, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a decision on February 28, 2014 finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 90-102. Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision, submitting new evidence, and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request. AR 1-86. This appeal followed.

         B. Plaintiff's Background and Testimony

         A hearing was held on January 22, 2014 in Fresno, CA. AR 112. Plaintiff was represented by attorney Gina Fazio. AR 112. A vocational expert, Cheryl Chandler (the “VE”), also provided testimony. AR 112.

         At the outset of the hearing, the ALJ questioned Plaintiff at length about a surveillance video taken of Plaintiff before her disability onset date. AR 118-123. The ALJ explained to Plaintiff that as a part of a workers' compensation investigation, she was secretly recorded participating in a yard sale with her family. AR 119. In the video, Plaintiff was seen bending, stooping and lifting items including a small child weighing approximately 18 pounds. AR 120. Plaintiff also appeared to be moving her neck with no difficulty. AR 121. Plaintiff explained that at the time the video was taken she was taking several prescription medications and attending physical therapy which alleviated her back and neck pain. AR 121-122.

         Plaintiff was born on June 23, 1969 making her 42 years old at the time of the hearing. AR 123. She is approximately five feet and eight inches tall and weighs 195 pounds. AR 123. Plaintiff has a high school education, and completed three and half years of college. AR 123. She is single and lives in a house with her 20-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son. AR 124. Plaintiff has a driver's license and generally drives about once a week. AR 124.

         When asked about her impairments, Plaintiff testified that her most severe pain is caused by headaches, neck pain and back pain, but she also “deals with knee pain.” AR 125. Pain medication generally helps with her neck and back pain. AR 126. Plaintiff also claims she has carpal tunnel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and that she suffers from daily headaches that last from 1-2 hours a day. AR 126. Plaintiff testified that her headaches and post-traumatic stress disorder began after being involved in an accident in 2009. AR 134, 136. Although not explained in detail during the administrative hearing, Plaintiff frequently referenced a pedestrian vs. motor vehicle accident that occurred on October 19, 2009. AR 632. In the accident, Plaintiff was clipped on the side of her body by a car going 5-10 mph in the parking lot of a Fresno County office building. AR 632. Plaintiff sprained her ankle; she was given a brace, prescribed pain medication and discharged on the same day. AR 631. Overall, based on her various impairments, Plaintiff testified she can lift 10-15 pounds, stand and walk for 15 minutes before needing a break, and sit comfortably for about 30 minutes. AR 127-128.

         When asked about her daily activities, Plaintiff testified she attends to her own personal needs. AR 131. She cooks about six to eight times a week, washes dishes and her own clothing. AR 131, 136. She watches television approximately two hours a day; and attends counseling about 2-3 times a month. AR 132-135.

         Thereafter, the ALJ heard testimony from a vocational expert who testified that based on the limitations adopted by the ALJ, Plaintiff could perform work as it exists in the national economy. AR 138-146.

         Medical Record

         The entire medical record was reviewed by the Court. AR 536-1485. 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 found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 9, 2012, her alleged onset date. AR 92. Second, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: status post two fusions of the cervical spine, multi-level degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, urinary incontinence, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, status post right hand release surgery, adjustment disorder, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and acute stress reaction vs. posttraumatic stress disorder. AR 82. Third, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have a listed impairment or combination of impairments. AR 93-94.

         After carefully reviewing the entire record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), lifting and carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; and siting, standing, and walking 6 hours in an 8-hour day. AR 94-101. The ALJ also found Plaintiff could frequently handle, finger, and feel bilaterally as well as balance, stoop, kneel and climb ramps or stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. AR 94. Plaintiff can occasionally crouch, and reach overhead with the dominant right upper extremity. She is limited however to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. AR 94. At the fourth step, the ALJ found Plaintiff could not perform any of her past relevant work. AR 101. However, at the fifth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. AR 101-102. Therefore, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 102.


         In order to qualify for benefits, a claimant must establish that he or she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c (a)(3)(A). A claimant must show that he or she has a physical or mental impairment of such severity that he or she is not only unable to do his or her previous work, but cannot, considering his or her age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. Quang Van Han v. Bowen, 882 F.2d 1453, 1456 (9th Cir. 1989). The burden is on the claimant to establish disability. Terry v. Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1273, 1275 (9th Cir. 1990).


         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. section 405(g), a Court may set aside a denial of benefits only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error. Robbins v. Social Security Administration, 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (citing Flaten v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995)). 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 (1971) (citations and quotations omitted). It is ...

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