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Owen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 21, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.




         Plaintiff Tracy Arlene Owen (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act and for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI 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.[2]

         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”) 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.


         Plaintiff filed her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on December 27, 2011. AR 190-93, 194-201.[3] Plaintiff alleged that she became disabled on September 14, 2010. AR 194. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. AR 112-15, 122-27. Subsequently, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). ALJ Susanne Lewald held a hearing on April 17, 2014, and issued an order denying benefits on May 20, 2014. AR 9-23, 29-63. Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council denied, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 1-3, 7. This appeal followed.

         Hearing Testimony

         The ALJ held a hearing on April 17, 2014, in San Francisco, California. AR 29-63. Plaintiff appeared and testified. She was represented by Diana P. Wade. AR 33. Medical Expert Dr. Lynne Jahnke and Vocational Expert Susan L. Creighton-Clavel also appeared. AR 31.

         As an initial matter, Dr. Jahnke, the medical expert (“ME”), testified that based on the review of the medical records, Plaintiff had medically-determinable impairments of chronic neck pain, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, occasional back pain and obesity. AR 40. Dr. Jahnke opined that none of these conditions, either singly or in combination, met or medically-equaled any of the relevant listings. AR 40-41. When asked about functional limitations, Dr. Jahnke testified that Plaintiff could lift up to ten pounds occasionally and five pounds frequently based on carpal tunnel syndrome. She had no restrictions to sit, stand or walk, but should never climb ladders or scaffolds. She frequently could balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. She could reach overhead with both hands occasionally. Her handling, fingering and feeling with the right hand would be limited to occasional and left hand to frequent. She should never be at unprotected heights and should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, heat and vibrations. AR 41-42. Dr. Jahnke testified that Plaintiff's condition had been at that severity since her alleged onset date in September 2010. AR 42. In response to questions from Plaintiff's representative, Dr. Jahnke further testified that Plaintiff should limit flipping her head back and forth to occasional, but should have no problem sitting and looking down while working. AR 42-43.

         Following Dr. Jahnke's testimony, Plaintiff responded to questions from her representative. With regard to problems with her hands, Plaintiff testified that she occasionally gets a sharp pain in her hands when she grasps at something, such as turning a doorknob or opening a bottle of water. She also unexpectedly drops things and has trouble signing her name or writing. Her hands go numb multiple times during the day, and her hands are numb when she wakes up in the morning. AR 44. She has not seen a doctor for surgery, but is waiting for Workman's Comp to determine if they are going to include it. At least one doctor has mentioned wearing braces on her wrists, but no one has given her a brace. AR 44-45.

         In connection with her neck pain, Plaintiff testified that sitting upright pulls on her neck muscles. She cannot turn her head right and left normally. She occasionally has headaches. She also has pain down into her shoulder muscles by her shoulder blades. Her worst pain is 10 out of 10 about once month, depending on her activity level. To take the pressure off of her shoulders and neck muscles, she will have to lean back on a high-back chair and put pillows under her head. Her doctor has not talked to her about wearing a neck brace. AR 45-47.

         With regard to her low back pain, Plaintiff testified that she had a flare-up last April. She could not do anything for two weeks, and the pain slowly diminished over a month's period of time. AR 47.

         When asked about medications, Plaintiff testified that she takes Norco for severe pain. Although it relieves about 98% of her pain, it makes her feel very drowsy. When she does not take Norco, she takes ibuprofen or naproxen, which does not really help. AR 47-48.

         When asked about work, Plaintiff did not think she could work because being on a regular schedule causes stress and going out causes strain on her neck muscles. Her main issues are her neck, hands and lower back. She also had problems with her feet, but was unable to have further treatment because she lacked medical benefits. AR 48-50.

         Following questioning by her representative, Plaintiff responded to questions from the ALJ regarding her past work. Plaintiff also testified regarding her impairments, indicating that her arm pain and hands had worsened since April 2013. Plaintiff reported taking Flexeril and amyltriptiline every night and Norco occasionally. AR 52-55.

         After questioning Plaintiff, the ALJ elicited testimony from the vocational expert (“VE”), Susan Creighton-Clavel. The VE categorized Plaintiff's past work as custodian/janitor and merchandise displayer. AR 55-58. The ALJ then asked the VE hypothetical questions. In the first hypothetical, the ALJ asked the VE to consider an individual of Plaintiff's age, education and experience who could lift and/or carry five pounds frequently, ten pounds occasionally, had no restrictions with respect to sitting, standing and walking, who should not work from ladders, ropes or scaffolds, could balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl frequently, could reach overhead with bilateral extremities occasionally, could handle, finger and feel with the right upper extremity occasionally and frequently with the left, could push and pull restricted to the weight amounts of five pounds frequently and ten pounds occasionally, could ...

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