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Crayton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. California

July 17, 2017



          PHYLLIS J. HAMILTON United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Donald R. Crayton (“Crayton”) seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) decision denying his claim for disability benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This action is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Having read the parties' papers and the administrative record, and having carefully considered their arguments and relevant legal authority, the court DENIES Crayton's motion for summary judgment, GRANTS the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision to deny benefits.


         Crayton was 42 years-old when he applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits on September 21, 2012. Administrative Record (“AR”) 191. Crayton initially alleged a disability date from June 1, 2001, which he later amended to the September 21, 2012 application date on advice of counsel. AR 39, 84. His application was denied on initial review and again upon reconsideration. AR 39.

         A hearing was conducted at Crayton's request by Administrative Law Judge Maxine R. Benmour (the “ALJ”) on September 25, 2014. AR 39. Crayton appeared and testified at the hearing, represented by counsel Jeffrey Simpson, who requested to amend the alleged onset of disability date at the hearing. AR 39. Vocational Expert Mary R. Ciddio (“VE”) also testified as an impartial expert at the hearing and was questioned by both the ALJ and Simpson. AR 80-82.

         In a written decision dated January 29, 2015, the ALJ concluded Crayton has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act since the September 21, 2012 application and onset date. AR 52. Crayton requested a review by the Appeals Council, which was denied in a notice dated June 8, 2016, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1.

         Crayton is a high school graduate but has engaged in no work that could be considered substantial gainful activity. AR 62. Crayton indicates that he was in special education in school as he had to be “one-on-one taught.” AR 74. Crayton was terminated from his last documented job in 2004 following an altercation with another employee and testified that he has lost most of his positions for similar behavior. AR 63- 64. In April and May of 2014, Crayton reported to physicians at the ER and at a follow-up visit that he was working as a furniture mover and experiencing shoulder pain. AR 477, 483. In May of 2014, Crayton told his psychologist, Dr. Maria Alvarez, that he was the primary caregiver for his infant son and then one-year-old granddaughter. AR 481.

         In 2012, Crayton was diagnosed as bipolar by doctors at the California Department of Corrections and was treated with medication. AR 309, 312. Following his release from prison in 2013, Crayton has been in the care of both a psychologist and a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with panic disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. AR 64, 597. Crayton indicates that he prefers to stay home, in his room, and feels anxious about going outside. AR 64-65.

         Crayton suffers from arthritis in both knees and his left shoulder. AR 68, 70. An MRI performed on March 28, 2014 showed mild degeneration of the left shoulder that is non-surgical. AR 483, 578. He also has diabetes, sleep apnea, and morbid obesity. AR 428. Additionally, Crayton alleges disability due to a history of Hodgkin's lymphoma in his adolescence, but has not identified any functional limitations caused by it. AR 212.

         Crayton also reports nerve damage resulting in unsteady hands, but there is no supporting medical evidence of this in the record. AR 212.

         Crayton takes medication for diabetes (Glimepiride and Metformin), but is not insulin dependent. AR 591, 597-98. He also takes pain medications (Gabapentin, Oxycodone and Methadone), medication for anxiety (Alprazolam), and is prescribed Lamotrigine for bipolar disorder. AR 597-98.


         The Social Security Act (“the Act”) provides for the payment of disability insurance benefits to people who have contributed to the social security system and who suffer from a physical or mental disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). To evaluate whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act, the ALJ is required to use a five-step analysis. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). The ALJ may end the analysis at any step when it is determined that the claimant is or is not disabled. Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502, 504 (9th Cir. 1990).

         At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has engaged in any “substantial gainful activity, ” which would automatically preclude the claimant receiving disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). If not, at the second step, the ALJ must consider whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment which “significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). The third step requires the ALJ to compare the claimant's impairment(s) to a listing of impairments in the regulations. If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals the severity of any medical condition contained in the listing, the claimant is presumed disabled and is awarded benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d).

         If the claimant's condition does not meet or equal a listing, the ALJ must proceed to the fourth step to consider whether the claimant has sufficient residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his past work despite the limitations caused by the impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e)-(f). An individual's RFC is what he can still do in a work setting despite his physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. In determining the RFC, the ALJ must consider all of the claimant's impairments, including those that are not severe, taking into account all relevant medical and other evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(e), 416.945. If the claimant cannot perform his past work, the Commissioner is required to show, at step five, that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, taking into consideration the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).

         Overall, in steps one through four, the claimant has the burden to demonstrate a severe impairment and an inability to engage in his previous occupation. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1040 (9th Cir. 1995). If the analysis proceeds to step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that the claimant can perform other work. Id.


         The ALJ determined Crayton has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Act since the September 21, 2012 application date. AR 39. Beginning at step one, Crayton had no reported earnings since his application date of September 21, 2012. Although Crayton told his doctor that he was working as a furniture mover in April and May of 2014, the ALJ did not consider this to be at substantial gainful activity levels. AR 41. At step two, the ALJ evaluated Crayton's impairments and determined that his diabetes, degenerative joint disease in both knees and left shoulder, sleep apnea, morbid obesity, and bipolar disorder were severe impairments that more than minimally limited his ability to perform basic work tasks. AR 42. The ALJ found that there was not severe impairment from Crayton's history of Hodgkin's lymphoma or self-reported nerve damage in his hands which was not supported by medical evidence or testing. AR 42.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that Crayton did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 42. This was determined by comparing Crayton's impairments to the relevant listings: listing 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint(s) due to any cause); listing 3.10 (sleep-related breathing disorders, including listing 3.02 sleep apnea); section 9.00 (endocrine disorders); listing 12.02 (neurocognitive disorders); and listing 12.04 (depressive, bipolar, and related disorders). AR 42-43. The ALJ found that Crayton's impairments do not meet the standards set out in the listings. AR 43. At all times relevant to the decision, Crayton had a Body Mass. Index (BMI) in excess of 30, which is considered to be obese. AR 43. However, the ALJ determined that neither the obesity alone, nor in combination with the other impairments, is of the severity to meet or equal the criteria of any impairment listed in Appendix 1. AR 43. Central to the ALJ's finding that Crayton's level of mental impairment is a mild restriction, and not a marked limitation, was evidence that he attended to his personal hygiene and grooming, acted as primary caretaker for his then-infant child and one-year-old grandchild, and has experienced no episodes of decompensation of an extended duration. AR 43-45. The ALJ determined that Crayton is moderately limited in social functioning due to outbursts of anger and panic attacks, but his treatment records do not reflect the severe isolation that Crayton describes. AR 44.

         Proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Crayton has the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a), including the ability to lift and/or carry ten pounds, sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday, and stand and/or walk for two hours in an eight-hour workday. AR 45. While the ALJ found Crayton's impairments could reasonably be expected to produce the pain and symptoms he alleged, she found his statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms “not entirely credible.” AR 46. The ALJ supported her finding with these facts: the claimant is diabetic but not insulin dependent, suffers from sleep apnea but does not use a CPAP machine, treatment for his degenerative joint disease is relatively conservative and non-surgical, and doctors describe his gait as normal. AR 46-47. Additionally, the ALJ found that Crayton was more active than his statements at the hearing indicated, since he told his doctor he was “play wrestling” with his wife when he fell down an embankment in September 2103 and working moving furniture in April of 2014. AR 47.

         The ALJ also believed that Crayton's bipolar disorder was less limiting than alleged because treatment records show that it is controlled by medication and that he is calm, soft-spoken, pleasant, and cooperative. AR 48. His treating physician ...

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