United States District Court, E.D. California
ORDER DIRECTING ENTRY OF JUDGMENT IN FAVOR OF
DEFENDANT, NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
SECURITY, AND AGAINST PLAINTIFF JENNIFER ELIZABETH
JENNIFER L. THURSTON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Elizabeth Cook asserts she is entitled to disability
insurance benefits and supplemental security income under
Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff seeks
judicial review of the decision denying her applications for
benefits, asserting the administrative law judge erred in
evaluating the medical record. Because the ALJ applied the
proper legal standards and the decision is supported by
substantial evidence in the record, the administrative
decision is AFFIRMED.
filed applications for benefits on July 15, 2013, in which
she alleged disability beginning March 1, 2013. (Doc. 11-3 at
17) The Social Security Administration denied the
applications at the initial level and upon reconsideration.
(Id.; Doc. 11-5 at 2-6, 14-19) Plaintiff requested a
hearing and testified before an ALJ on November 6, 2014.
(Doc. 11-3 at 17) The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not
disabled under the Social Security Act, and issued an order
denying benefits on January 30, 2015. (Id. at 14-29)
Plaintiff filed a request for review of the decision with the
Appeals Council, which denied the request on January 22,
2016. (Id. at 2-5) Therefore, the ALJ's
determination became the final decision of the Commissioner
of Social Security.
courts have a limited scope of judicial review for disability
claims after a decision by the Commissioner to deny benefits
under the Social Security Act. When reviewing findings of
fact, such as whether a claimant was disabled, the Court must
determine whether the Commissioner's decision is
supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.
42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The ALJ's determination that the
claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court if the
proper legal standards were applied and the findings are
supported by substantial evidence. See Sanchez v.
Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 812 F.2d 509, 510
(9th Cir. 1987).
evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol.
Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197 (1938)). The record as
a whole must be considered, because “[t]he court must
consider both evidence that supports and evidence that
detracts from the ALJ's conclusion.” Jones v.
Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985).
qualify for benefits under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff
must establish she is unable to engage in substantial gainful
activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental
impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a
continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C.
§ 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual shall be considered to
have a disability 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.
42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The burden of proof is on a
claimant to establish disability. Terry v. Sullivan,
903 F.2d 1273, 1275 (9th Cir. 1990). If a claimant
establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden
shifts to the Commissioner to prove the claimant is able to
engage in other substantial gainful employment. Maounis
v. Heckler, 738 F.2d 1032, 1034 (9th Cir. 1984).
achieve uniform decisions, the Commissioner established a
sequential five-step process for evaluating a claimant's
alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520,
416.920(a)-(f). The process requires the ALJ to determine
whether Plaintiff (1) engaged in substantial gainful activity
during the period of alleged disability, (2) had medically
determinable severe impairments (3) that met or equaled one
of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1; and whether Plaintiff (4) had the
residual functional capacity to perform to past relevant work
or (5) the ability to perform other work existing in
significant numbers at the state and national level.
Id. The ALJ must consider testimonial and objective
medical evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927.
Relevant Medical Evidence
2010, Plaintiff underwent an x-ray of her lumbar spine, which
Dr. Dale Van Kirk opined showed “degenerative arthritis
of the lumbar spine with degenerative disc disease” at
the L4-S1 level. (Doc. 11-9 at 2)
2012, Plaintiff went to the office of Dr. Narwhals Mating to
request a refill of prescription pain medications, reporting
the “pills help[ed] her move and do her job.”
(Doc. 11-8 at 11) Dr. Mating noted that in the past,
Plaintiff had been diagnosed with back pain, chronic pain
syndrome, and anxiety. (Id.) Upon examination, Dr.
Mating found Plaintiff's “lower back exhibited
swelling and tenderness on palpation.” (Id. at
12) Plaintiff also “demonstrated tenderness on
palpation” in the thoracolumbar spine, and her
“motion was abnormal.” (Id.) Dr. Mating
prescribed Plaintiff with Norco, Soma, and Xanax.
(Id. at 13)
2012, Plaintiff continued to have pain, which she described
it as “9” on the pain scale. (Doc. 11-8 at 6-7)
Dr. Mating noted that Plaintiff had “tenderness on
palpation” in her lower back and thoracolumbar spine.
(Id. at 7) Dr. Mating again found Plaintiff had
abnormal motion in the spine. (Id.)
August and September 2012, Plaintiff went to Dr. Mating
seeking prescription refills. (Doc. 11-8 at 121, 125)
Plaintiff reported that she was worried her insurance would
not give her a month's worth of medication. (Id.
at 121) She continued to describe her pain level as
“9.” (Id. at 126)
following month, Plaintiff requested a “jury
excuse” from Dr. Mating, who noted Plaintiff was taking
“multiple mind altering meds.” (Doc. 11-8 at 118)
Dr. Mating observed that Plaintiff's “lower back
exhibited swelling, tenderness on palpation of the lower
back, and muscle spasm of the back.” (Id. at
119) In addition, her “thoracolumbar spine demonstrated
tenderness on palpation and motion was abnormal.”
(Id.) Plaintiff described her pain as a
“10” to Dr. Mating. (Id.)
January 2013, Plaintiff again said the medication helped her
to “move and do her job.” (Doc. 11-8 at 110) She
said her pain remained a “10.” (Id.) In
March 2013, she continued to describe her pain as a
“10, ” stating she had “[i]ncreased pain
from having to take care of multiple family members.”
(Id. at 104) Dr. Mating continued to prescribe
Norco, Soma, and Xanax. (Id. at 105)
told Dr. Mating that she was “[l]ooking for a
job” in April 2013. (Doc. 11-8 at 100) She reported the
medication continued to help her move. (Id.) Dr.
Mating found Plaintiff had a positive Tinel's test on the
left side. (Id. at 102)
7, 2013, Dr. Mating made an addendum to his treatment notes,
in which he indicated: “Both father and aunt have seen
me on separate occasions and told me that Jennifer is heavily
using methamphetamine.” (Doc. 11-8 at 100) In addition,
Dr. Mating noted that Plaintiff “had problems with
controlled substances at least twice since being under [his]
care.” (Id.) On May 8, Dr. Mating noted that
Plaintiff tested “positive for methamphetamine and for
dilaudid that she [was] not prescribed.” (Id.,
emphasis omitted) He noted that Plaintiff was “given
multiple chances in the past” and opined that Plaintiff
“demonstrate[d] no intention to stop her pattern of
polysubstance abuse.” (Id., emphasis omitted)
As a result, Dr. Mating cancelled Plaintiff's “pain
contract” and referred Plaintiff to pain management and
9, 2013, Plaintiff visited Dr. Mating for a prescription
refill, and her aunt was also present. (Doc. 11-8 at 94)
Plaintiff “denie[d] any problem with drug abuse,
” though she admitted to using meth “three times
in the last couple of months.” (Id., emphasis
added) Dr. Mating noted that Plaintiff's aunt
“strongly contradict[ed]” her, and said Plaintiff
was “heavily abusing meth.” (Id.,
emphasis omitted) Dr. Mating opined the drug test results
supported the assertion that Plaintiff was heavily abusing
the drugs. (Id.)
13, 2013, Plaintiff “self admitted cocaine
abuse.” (Doc. 11-8 at 91) Dr. Mating opined Plaintiff
was “out of control” and recommended daily
pickups for her medication “until titrated to
zero.” (Id.) On May 17, Dr. Mating noted he
discussed Plaintiff with a psychiatrist, who supported the
decision to titrate Plaintiff off all controlled substances.
(Id. at 61) Plaintiff denied drug abuse and said her
problems were “caused by everyone else, ”
including Dr. Mating. (Id.) She requested that she
be able to transfer the care of the medical director.
2013, Plaintiff was treated by physicians' assistants, to
whom she complained of “chronic pain” that was
“not controlled on current medications.” (Doc.
11-8 at 71, 78) In addition, Plaintiff complained of pain in
her wrists, and had x-rays taken on June 27. (Id. at
43-44) Dr. Narin Siribhadra determined Plaintiff had
“[d]egenerative arthritis of both hands especially of
the thumbs.” (Id. at 43) In addition, Dr.
Siribhadra found Plaintiff's right wrist was normal.
(Id. at 44) Dr. Mating continued the titration of
her medications and directed that Plaintiff be seen on a
weekly basis until the medications were titrated to zero.
(Id. at 56) Plaintiff told Dr. Mating that she
“may establish care elsewhere.” (Id.)
1, 2013, Plaintiff exhibited “no interest in
medications … that were not addictive.” (Doc.
11-8 at 50) Dr. Mating noted that “[t]he last time [he]
stopped her ambien, a Porterville provider immediately
restarted it.” (Id.) Dr. Mating stated he
would “not collaborate in the inappropriate prescribing
of controlled substances, ” and referred Plaintiff to
pain management. (Id.) Two days later, Plaintiff
went to Sequoia Family Medical Center, seeking “to
change providers and establish care” with Dr. Sidhu.
(Id. at 131) Dr. Sidhu noted Plaintiff complained of
“severe pain to hands” that inferred with her
activities daily living. (Id.) Plaintiff also
demonstrated tenderness in her back. (Id.) Further,
Plaintiff requested refills of her pain medication and
ambien, and Dr. Sidhu noted that Dr. Mating had been
titrating Plaintiff's medication. (Id.)
August 2013, Plaintiff told Dr. Sidhu that she had knee pain.
(Doc. 11-9 at 44) The following month, she reported she had
pain in both hands, but was “otherwise doing
well.” (Id. at 43)
reported she continued to have pain in her hands on October
4, 2013. (Doc. 11-9 at 40) In addition, Plaintiff described
having “major anxiety recently” and an increase
in her back pain. (Id.) Dr. Sidhu
“okayed” an increase in her prescription for
Xanax and a refill of Norco. (Id.) Plaintiff
returned to the medical center on October 21 for treatment of
a rash, but also reporting that she needed ...