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Brown v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California, Western Division

June 19, 2017

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




         On June 17, 2016, Plaintiff Allen Christopher Brown (“Plaintiff”) filed a Complaint seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). (Docket Entry No 1). On November 16, 2016, Defendant filed an Answer to the Complaint and the Certified Administrative Record (“AR”). (Docket Entry Nos. 17- 18). The parties have consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge. (Docket Entry Nos. 13, 14). The parties filed a Joint Stipulation (“Joint Stip.”) on February 21, 2017, setting forth their respective positions on Plaintiff's claims. (Docket Entry No. 19).


         On January 2, 2013, Plaintiff, formerly employed as a data entry clerk, phlebotomist, quality control technician, lab technician, blending tank tender, equipment cleaner and soil tester, (see AR 62-63), filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), alleging disability beginning on September 25, 2012. (AR 145). On July 10, 2014, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Elizabeth R. Lishner, examined the record and heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and vocational expert (“VE”), Ronald Hatakeyama. (AR 29-69). On September 12, 2014, the ALJ denied Plaintiff benefits in a written decision. (AR 9-18).

         The ALJ applied the five-step process in evaluating Plaintiff's case. (AR 11-18). At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after the alleged onset date of September 25, 2012. (AR 11). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of depression and inguinal hernia. (AR 11). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal a Listing found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AR 11).

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b), including lifting up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; standing and/or walking up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; sitting up to 6 hours in an 8 hour workday; limited to occasional complex work; and no fast-paced production work. (AR 13).

         In making this finding, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of his symptoms were less than fully credible. (AR 15). The ALJ noted that although Plaintiff asserted he could lift no more than 5 pounds, had difficulty concentrating and poor mental aptitude, his assertions were not supported by the objective medical record. (AR 15). Medical records indicated he had good mental status examinations and rarely complained of physical pain after his hernia surgery. (Id.) In addition, Plaintiff testified that his pain decreased and mental condition improved after the hernia surgery he had undergone six months ago, he did not regularly see his doctor for any pain, and that he completed normal daily activities, such as cooking, attending group meetings, walking, and going to the library. (Id.). Moreover, while Plaintiff testified that he felt side effects from his medication, the record repeatedly mentioned that there were no side effects. (Id.).

         In determining the Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ gave more weight to the report prepared by F.L. Williams, M.D., a State agency physician, than to the opinion of Mark Geisbrecht, M.D., Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist. (AR 16).

         In a Disability Determination Explanation dated July 8, 2013, Dr. Williams found Plaintiff was not significantly limited in his ability to understand and carry out very short and simple instructions, perform activities within a schedule, sustain an ordinary routine without supervision, work in coordination with, or in proximity to, others without being distracted by them, make simple work-related decisions, and complete a normal workday without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms; moderately limited in his ability to carry out detailed instructions and maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; and markedly limited in the ability to understand and remember detailed instructions. (AR 77). Dr. Williams ultimately found that Plaintiff's limitations were not severe enough to keep him from working. (AR 80).

         The ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Williams' opinion that Plaintiff could understand and perform simple instructions, finding that Plaintiff's testimony and medical records showed that he was capable of performing more than simple, repetitive tasks. (AR 16). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had mild restrictions in activities of daily living because he was able to take care of himself, attend group meetings, go on walks and visit the library. (AR 12). The ALJ found that Plaintiff has mild difficulties in social functioning because, although he asserted that he has difficulty tolerating others in his disability application, he testified that he has some friends. (AR 12). The ALJ found that, in regard to concentration, persistence and pace, Plaintiff has moderate difficulties. (AR 12). Plaintiff testified his main problem was concentration, but his medical records described good mental status examinations. (AR 12). The ALJ found only one instance of Plaintiff struggling to stay concentrated and on task. (See AR 377). The ALJ did not find any episode of decompensation for an extended period of time. (AR 12). The ALJ found no evidence that Plaintiff's depression could result in any decompensation because he had been able to function outside a highly supportive environment. (AR 12).

         In a Residual Functional Questionnaire, dated December 10, 2013, Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Geisbrecht opined that Plaintiff could sit for 3 hours in an 8-hour workday and stand/walk for 2 hours in an 8-hour workday; occasionally lift less than 10 pounds; engage in grasping, fine manipulation and reaching for 50 percent of the workday; and miss work three or more times per month. (AR 454-55). Dr. Geisbrecht reported Plaintiff experienced drowsiness, pain, blurred vision and headaches as side effects of his medication. (AR 454).

         The ALJ rejected the opinion of, Dr. Geisbrecht because it was inconsistent with his own treatment notes and not supported by Plaintiff's medical records. (AR 16). For example, the ALJ noted that Dr. Geisbrecht mentioned side effects on the Residual Functional Questionnaire but did not note any side effects in his examination notes. (AR 16). The ALJ noted that Plaintiff's “medical status examinations were good, with normal speech and eye contact, affect congruent with mood, linear thought process, and no thought content disturbances.” (AR 14). The ALJ highlighted that during one exam “his insight was adequate and his judgment intact” and he had good grooming, stable gait, with an organized and linear thought process. (AR 14). In early 2014, Plaintiff stated that his depression “seemed like it [was] easing.” (AR 14).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not able to perform his past relevant work. (AR 16). At step five, the ALJ found Plaintiff was able to perform jobs consistent with his age, education and medical limitations existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (AR 17). The ALJ adopted VE testimony that Plaintiff could perform the jobs of office helper (DOT 239.567-010), mail clerk (DOT 209.687-026) and cleaner housekeeper (DOT 323.687-014). (AR 17). The ALJ determined that the VE's testimony was consistent with the information contained in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). ...

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