United States District Court, N.D. California
ORDER ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT RE: DKT.
NOS. 23, 28
M. Ryu United States Magistrate Judge
Courtney Ann Schmidt moves for summary judgment to reverse
the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's
(the “Commissioner's”) final administrative
decision, which found Plaintiff not disabled and therefore
denied her application for benefits under Titles II and XVI
of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et
seq. and § 1381 et seq. The Commissioner
cross-moves to affirm. For the reasons stated below, the
court denies Plaintiff's motion and grants the
filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance
and Supplemental Security Income benefits on June 26, 2012,
alleging disability beginning on January 21, 2012.
Administrative Record (“A.R.”) 145-51, 152-58.
The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's
application at the initial and reconsideration levels on
December 6, 2012 and June 28, 2013, respectively. A.R. 89-93,
97-102. On July 9, 2013, Plaintiff filed a request for a
hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). A.R. 107-09. ALJ Regina L. Sleater
conducted a hearing on June 5, 2014 at which Plaintiff
testified, along with a medical expert and a vocational
expert (“VE”). A.R. 40-84. After the hearing, at
the ALJ's request, Plaintiff submitted a copy of nerve
conduction and electromyogram (EMG) tests conducted on June
17, 2014 which revealed moderate to severe right carpal
tunnel syndrome and moderate left carpal tunnel syndrome.
A.R. 83-84, 1057-59.
the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not
disabled. A.R. 18-33. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had
engaged in substantial gainful activity in March and April
2014 working part-time as a student aide, and noted that
Plaintiff had last worked on the morning of the hearing. A.R.
23-24. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following
severe impairments: obesity, bilateral carpal tunnel
syndrome, and right hip labrum tear. A.R. 24. The ALJ found
that Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity (RFC)
to perform light work with certain limitations:
Claimant has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20
CFR [§§] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except for the
following limitations: lift 10 pounds frequently, 20 pounds
occasionally; stand/walk 4 hours in a[n] 8-hour day; sit 6
hours in an 8-hour day; occasionally climb stairs with
bannisters and ramps; occasionally perform other postural
except no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and no
crawling; occasional reaching, grasping, twisting, and gross
and fine manipulation; no work around hazards such as
unprotected heights or industrial machinery; and avoid
concentrated exposure to industrial vibrations.
relied on the opinion of the VE who testified that an
individual with such an RFC could perform other jobs existing
in the economy, including Plaintiff's past relevant work
and current work as a “teacher aide II.” The ALJ
thus concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled. A.R. 32-33.
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on
August 28, 2015. A.R. 1-7. The ALJ's decision therefore
became the Commissioner's final decision. Taylor v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 659 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th
Cir. 2011). Plaintiff then filed suit in this court pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
THE FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must demonstrate
a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that
prevents her from engaging in substantial gainful
activity and that is expected to result in death or
to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months.
Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir. 1998)
(citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). The impairment must
render the claimant incapable of performing the work she
previously performed and incapable of performing any other
substantial gainful employment that exists in the national
economy. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th
Cir. 1999) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)).
decide if a claimant is entitled to benefits, an ALJ conducts
a five-step inquiry. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520,
416.920. The steps are as follows:
1. At the first step, the ALJ considers the claimant's
work activity, if any. If the claimant is doing substantial
gainful activity, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not
2. At the second step, the ALJ considers the medical severity
of the claimant's impairment(s). If the claimant does not
have a severe medically determinable physical or mental
impairment that meets the duration requirement in [20 C.F.R.]
§ 416.909, or a combination of impairments that is
severe and meets the duration requirement, the ALJ will find
that the claimant is not disabled.
3. At the third step, the ALJ also considers the medical
severity of the claimant's impairment(s). If the claimant
has an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of the listings
in 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 [the
“Listings”] and meets the duration requirement,
the ALJ will find that the claimant is disabled.
4. At the fourth step, the ALJ considers an assessment of the
claimant's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) and the claimant's past relevant
work. If the claimant can still do his or her past relevant
work, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled.
5. At the fifth and last step, the ALJ considers the
assessment of the claimant's RFC and age, education, and
work experience to see if the claimant can make an adjustment
to other work. If the claimant can make an adjustment to
other work, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not
disabled. If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other
work, the ALJ will find that the claimant is disabled.
20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520;
Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098-99.
is a 32 year old woman (29 years old on the day of her
hearing) who lives with her two children, sister, and nephew.
A.R. 43. She completed three years of college. A.R. 70.
Plaintiff's children, ages 6 and 2, have had medical
problems; according to Plaintiff, her six year old was born
with craniosynostosis and had full skull reconstruction at
six months of age and her two year old has undergone surgery
for laryngomalacia. A.R. 43. Plaintiff testified that she had
been treated for depression and saw a therapist from February
2012 until June or July 2012, when she could no longer afford
treatment. A.R. 57-58. She further testified that she
“find[s] [her] anxiety is worse than any depression,
” stating, “I'm relatively happy. Besides the
pain and everything internally, I feel that the anxiety is
the worse part.” A.R. 59. She discussed her anxiety
with her doctor, Dr. Gabiola, who prescribed medicine, but
Plaintiff only took the medication for two months due to the
side effects. A.R. 59-60. Plaintiff testified that when she
feels “anxiety coming on, ” she tries to do
“physical work throughs, ” such as slow
breathing, taking warm baths, and trying to
“self-sooth[e].” A.R. 60.
testified that her “vision comes and goes.” A.R.
61. Plaintiff testified about pain in her hips, stating
“it hurts to get up, it hurts to stand up, [and] it
hurts to walk.” A.R. 62. She testified that all of her
joints hurt, and that she sometimes needs assistance to stand
up from the couch due to the pain. There have also been
occasions when she has had to crawl because she could not
stand up to walk. According to Plaintiff, her vision changes
“throw [her] off” and cause her to lose her
balance and fall down. A.R. 63.
testified that she returned to work in August or September
2013, working as a school crossing guard for a total of one
hour per day. A.R. 65-66. She still works a half hour per day
as a crossing guard “off and on, depending on [her]
energy level and if [she's] in pain, ” and is able
to use a long stick that enables her to rest or sit if
necessary while working. A.R. 66. Since February 2014,
Plaintiff has worked at an elementary school as an
instructional aide for a student with special needs. She
works 4 to 4.5 hours per day, five days per week, and earns
$19.50 per hour. A.R. 64. Plaintiff testified that she had
last worked as an instructional aide the morning of the
hearing. A.R. 63.
position as an instructional aide, Plaintiff works with a
seven year old child with autism. She described the work as
Right now I take tallies and I am [sic] vocally tell her to
sit. And basically if she has an outburst I stand in front of
her until the principal is able to come.
A.R. 69. As to sitting and standing, she is “up and
down, ” which she testified is helpful. She is also
able to take breaks if she is in pain. A.R. 69-70. At the end
of a shift, Plaintiff feels exhausted and usually goes home
to sleep before returning to her crossing guard job for half
an hour. A.R. 70.
testified that she believes that her pain keeps her from
working, and that she believes that she could work if she did
not have pain and problems with balance and walking. A.R. 70.
Plaintiff also has irritable bowel syndrome and has to use
the restroom one to three times per four-hour shift. A.R. 71.
She also testified that she experiences side effects from her
medications, including dizziness. A.R. 72.
Relevant Medical Evidence
Dr. Wil B. Nelp, M.D.
expert Dr. Wil Nelp testified at the hearing. Dr. Nelp
summarized Plaintiff's records and noted that Plaintiff
had had thyroid cancer, but that after treatment, the medical
records “indicate that she most likely is cured of this
illness” and that she now shows normal
metabolism. A.R. 48-49. He also noted that Plaintiff
had complained of chronic arthralgia and ...