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Huntsberry v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. California

June 6, 2017



          HAYWOOD S. GILLIAM, JR. United States District Judge

         Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill is the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). The former Acting Commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, acting in her official capacity, denied Plaintiff Dianne Huntsberry's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Dkt. No. 1. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of that decision. Id. On June 29, 2016, Defendant lodged the administrative record with the Court. Dkt. No. 11. Plaintiff timely filed her motion for summary judgment on August 16, 2016, Dkt. Nos. 14 (“Pl.'s MSJ”); Defendant timely filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on September 14, 2016, Dkt No. 15 (“Def.'s MSJ”); and Plaintiff filed a untimely reply brief on October 3, 2016, Dkt. No. 16; see also Dkt. No. 4 (14 days from service of cross motion to reply); Dkt. No. 13 (scheduling stipulation not affecting reply date). The Court finds that this matter is appropriate for disposition without oral argument and the matter is deemed submitted. See Civil L.R. 7-1(b). For the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and GRANTS Defendant's motion for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1959. AR 242. She completed two years of college and worked as a security guard, in a probation department, as a fire watcher, and as a daycare worker. AR 247.

         1. Plaintiff's Medical Condition

         Plaintiff alleges that she has suffered from depression and anxiety since March 13, 2013. AR 18. She has not worked since the alleged onset date, and was most recently employed with Intercon Security as a security guard at the DMV. AR 30, 62. Plaintiff testified that she stopped working “[d]ue to stress and being threatened on the job.” AR 30. A male supervisor yelled at her while standing so close that his spittle landed on her face; he cornered her in a back office; and he “pointed his finger in her chest.” AR 363. Plaintiff claims that she has been unable to work in a different environment due to anxiety attacks, loss of focus, and the stress from losing her mother. AR 31-32; see also AR 363 (describing Plaintiff's unresolved grief from mother's death in October 2012, Plaintiff's estrangement from siblings due to disputes over her mother's end-of-life care, and Plaintiff's inability to keep food down after her mother's death, causing her to lose 75 pounds in 5 months). In addition, Plaintiff was the victim of domestic violence during a thirteen-year-long marriage. AR 363. Plaintiff testified that she suffered from insomnia, memory problems, and difficulty being around groups of people. AR 32-33. However, she testified that she was able to lift about 20 pounds, get up and down stairs, walk continuously for approximately one-half to one block, and perhaps stand for 10 to 15 minutes. AR 36.

         2. Plaintiff's Medical Treatment

         Plaintiff received medical treatment from several different providers. She received treatment at Kaiser Permanente from March 2013 to May 2013, South County Self-Sufficiency Center on April 2, 2013, and the Schuman-Liles Clinic from May 2013 to May 2014.

         a. Kaiser Permanente

         Between March 11 and May 8, 2013, Plaintiff received treatment from the following healthcare providers at Kaiser Permanente: Dr. Marc Nelson, Ms. Gabriela Kremer, Dr. Margaret Chao, Dr. Jianne Gimian, Dr. David Atkins, Dr. Stephanie Shippen, and Ms. Jenica Babbit-Pearce. AR 320-337, 344-96. On March 11, 2013, Plaintiff received treatment in the Emergency Department from Dr. Nelson and Ms. Kremer, a registered nurse, for headaches, back and chest pains, anxiety, and depression. AR 320-337. On March 12, 2013, Plaintiff received treatment at the Crisis Clinic from Dr. Chao, who noted that Plaintiff presented “multiple compounding psychosocial stressors” and recommended group therapy. AR 344-50. On March 15, 2013, Plaintiff returned to the Crisis Clinic and saw Dr. Gimian, who diagnosed her with acute stress disorder. AR 351-53. Dr. Gimian referred her to a psychiatrist for a medical evaluation. AR 352. On March 18, 2013, Plaintiff met with a psychiatrist, Dr. Atkins, who diagnosed her with major depressive disorder “in the setting of severe social stressors.” AR 354-361. On March 19, 2013, Plaintiff met with another psychologist, Dr. Shippen, who also diagnosed her with acute stress disorder. AR 362-71. On March 21, 2013, Plaintiff attended a group therapy session with Ms. Babbit-Pearce, a social worker, but decided not to continue because hearing others' problems made her feel more anxious. AR 372-73, 375. Plaintiff met again with Dr. Shippen on March 26, 2017, and had six follow-up telephone calls with Dr. Shippen between March 26 and May 1, 2013, without any change in diagnosis. AR 374-92. Plaintiff met again with Dr. Atkins on May 8, 2013, and reported that her symptoms of depression were slightly worse since the last visit, resulting in no change of diagnosis or medication. AR 393-96.

         b. South County Self-Sufficiency Center

         Plaintiff was treated by Dr. Bob Kennedy of the South County Self-Sufficiency Center on April 2, 2013, as reflected in the “check-the-box” form that he filled out. AR 337-41. On a 4-point scale, Dr. Kennedy gave Plaintiff rankings of 3 on measures of understanding and memory, rankings from 2 to 4 on measures of concentration and persistence, rankings of 2 to 3 on measures of sustained concentration and persistence, and rankings of 3 on measures of adaption-where 2 meant “not significantly limited, ” 3 meant “moderately limited” and 4 meant “markedly limited.” AR 338-39. He reported that Plaintiff's mental health condition would prevent her from working for at least 12 months, while contradictorily reporting that she did not have any work restrictions relating to her mental health conditions. AR 340.

         c. Schuman-Liles Clinic

         Plaintiff was treated at the Schuman-Liles Clinic from May 21, 2013 until at least May 31, 2014. AR 425-49. During that time, three doctors treated Plaintiff: Dr. Monika Do Valle (one visit), Dr. Christopher Stauffer (one visit), and Dr. Michael Hipolito (four visits). Id. On May 21, 2013, Dr. Do Valle diagnosed Plaintiff with (1) generalized anxiety disorder and (2) moderate major depression, recurrent episode. AR 447. As to Plaintiff's mental exam, Dr. Do Valle observed as follows: Plaintiff's appearance, behavior, speech, thought process, orientation, attention, and memory were all within normal limits; her mood/affect and concentration were not. Id. On November 9, 2013, Dr. Christopher Stauffer repeated the same diagnoses and mental observations. AR 444. So did Dr. Hipolito on January 4 and January 25, 2014. AR 435, 439. On March 31 and May 31, 2014, Dr. Hipolito repeated the same diagnoses, and observed as follows: Plaintiff's appearance, behavior, speech, thought process, orientation, insight, and judgment were within normal limits; her mood/affect was not within normal limits; and she “denie[d] SI/HI.”[1]AR 427-28, 431. In uniformly concluding that Plaintiff's appearance was within normal limits, each of these doctors noted that Plaintiff was “neatly groomed” and “clean.” AR 427, 431, 435, 439 (Dr. Hipolito); AR 444 (Dr. Stauffer); AR 447 (Dr. Do Valle). Also on May 31, 2014, Dr. Hipolito completed a mental medical source statement, opining that Plaintiff had “moderate” limitations in five areas of work-related mental functions and “marked” limitations in fifteen other such areas. AR 422-23.[2]

         3. Views of Non-Examining State-Agency Psychologists

         Two non-examining State-agency psychologists, Dr. Jon Etienne Mourot and Dr. Anna Franco, made determinations regarding Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). In his June 24, 2013 initial-level RFC assessment, Dr. Mourot opined as follows: “[Plaintiff] retains the capacity to do simple repetitive 1-2 step tasks with limited public and interpersonal contact. UNSKILLED.” AR 61, 74. In her September 24, 2013 reconsideration-level RFC assessment, Dr. Franco adopted the same opinion word for word. AR 91, 106.

         B. Legal Framework of the Social Security Act

         To qualify for DIB or SSI, the claimant must be “disabled” as defined by the Social Security Act (“Act”). Both benefit programs define disability as an individual's inability “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); id. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505; id. § 416.905.[3] The SSA deems a person disabled

only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. For purposes of the preceding sentence (with respect to any individual), “work which exists in the national economy” means work which exists in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); id. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         1. Five-Step Process for Evaluating Claimant's Disability Claim

         When the claimant is dissatisfied with the initial and reconsidered decisions by the SSA, the claimant may request a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.929, 416.1429. The ALJ will issue a new decision based on the preponderance of the evidence developed in the hearing record and in the file. Id. §§ 404.929, 416.1429. To determine whether the claimant qualifies for disability benefits, the ALJ utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

         a. Step One: Substantial ...

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