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Schmidt v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. California

June 6, 2017

COURTNEY ANN SCHMIDT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.

          ORDER ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT RE: DKT. NOS. 23, 28

          Donna M. Ryu United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff 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 Commissioner's motion.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff 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.

         After 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.

A.R. 28-29.

         The ALJ 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.

         The 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).

         II. THE FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must demonstrate a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that prevents her from engaging in substantial gainful activity[1] 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)).

         To 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 disabled.
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.

         III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiff's Testimony

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         In her position as an instructional aide, Plaintiff works with a seven year old child with autism. She described the work as follows:

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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         B. Relevant Medical Evidence

         1. Dr. Wil B. Nelp, M.D.

         Medical 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.[2] A.R. 48-49. He also noted that Plaintiff had complained of chronic arthralgia and ...


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