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Fry v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 24, 2017

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




         Plaintiff Sara Christine Fry (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted, without oral argument, to Magistrate Judge Barbara A. McAuliffe.[2] Having carefully considered the parties' briefs as well as the entire record in this case, the Court finds the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to be supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and based upon proper legal standards. Accordingly, this Court affirms the agency's determination to deny benefits.


         On February 27, 2013, Plaintiff filed her current application for supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning on June 25, 2006. AR 153-158.[3] Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. AR 94-97, 99-103. Subsequently, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). AR 105-107. Plaintiff testified at a hearing before ALJ Christine Hilleren and the ALJ issued an order denying benefits on August 25, 2015. AR 18-36. Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council denied on January 14, 2016, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 1-5. This appeal followed.

         Hearing Testimony

         The ALJ held a hearing on June 29, 2015, in Fresno, California. AR 37-69. Plaintiff appeared and was represented by attorney Rachel Mahoney. AR 39. Impartial Vocational Expert Judith Najarian also appeared and testified. AR 37, 65-68.

         Plaintiff was born on November 8, 1990, and was 24 years old at the time of the hearing. AR 43. Plaintiff has some college education but she was unable to graduate due to her impairments. AR 42, 45. Plaintiff has never held substantial gainful employment. AR 44. She lives with her mother for less than two months out of the year and spends the rest of her time camping or staying with friends. AR 43.

         With respect to her impairments, Plaintiff testified that in 2006, she suffered a concussion during a water polo match when she was sixteen years old. AR 42, 473. She hit her head on the side of the pool and was later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. AR 42, 1047-1055. As a result of her injury and related neurological issues, Plaintiff testified she experiences seizures, extreme fatigue, pain, and other cognitive difficulties. AR 42. Plaintiff further testified that she suffers from stabbing pains, pain in her ears, and blurry vision. AR 45-46. She experiences these symptoms intermittently, but they regularly occur approximately fifteen times per month. AR 47.

         Plaintiff also testified about her experiences with seizures. AR 49. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff had not had a seizure for over four months. AR 49. Plaintiff testified that prior to this time she was experiencing seizures almost daily. AR 49-50. Plaintiff described the onset of her seizures, explaining that she first feels numbness in her hands that later travels to her face. AR 50. She generally vomits, loses her balance, becomes disoriented, and then smells fire. AR 50. Plaintiff testified that after these seizures she experiences memory loss ranging from a period of six hours to two days. AR 50-51.

         When asked about her current medications, Plaintiff testified that she has been on Growth Hormone (“GH”) therapy which has significantly improved her symptoms, but that she still experiences vomiting and dizziness approximately seven or eight times a month. AR 45-49. Plaintiff also takes Hydrocodone for menstrual pain. AR 51.

         With respect to her daily activities, Plaintiff testified about her extensive experience with long distance hiking. AR 52. In July 2014, Plaintiff went on a “five-month” cross country-hike. AR 55. Because of her symptoms, Plaintiff was not able to complete all segments of the hike; she completed only 2, 100 miles. AR 56. Plaintiff regularly lifts thirty pounds, and she regularly hikes carrying a seventeen pound backpack. AR 51-52. If feeling well, Plaintiff stated she could be on her feet the entire day, and she could sit for hours without needing to stand. AR 52. As for her symptoms while hiking, Plaintiff testified that she handles her symptoms much better in secluded outdoor areas. Plaintiff stated that her symptoms occur at the same frequency while she is hiking, and when her symptoms become debilitating she lays down in her tent until she has recovered. AR 51-53. Two weeks before the hearing, Plaintiff stated that she went on a three day forty-four mile hike. AR 57. Plaintiff testified that on average, it takes her one to two days of mostly sleeping, before she feels energized enough to begin another hike. AR 57.

         In response to questions from her attorney, Plaintiff testified that since her accident in 2006 she has had a constant headache that often escalates into migraines. AR 58. Although she has tried over 50 different medications, no medication has alleviated or helped ease this pain. AR 58. Her headaches are also accompanied by sharp pains all over her body, and sometimes Plaintiff experiences tightness in her chest that can last for hours. AR 59.

         Plaintiff also testified that at age 19, she was diagnosed with melanoma, which required her to have 11 surgeries over a span of 13 months AR 58-59. Plaintiff's recovery from surgery is slow because her pain medications are ineffective. AR 60-61. She testified that another surgery was planned but not yet scheduled. AR 50-61, 64.

         When asked about her cognitive abilities, Plaintiff testified that she has a poor memory. She forgets things like what she did the day before or the PIN number for her bank card. AR 61. Furthermore, she stated that her sleep patterns are sporadic, and that she frequently takes long naps during the day. AR 62.

         Thereafter, the ALJ asked vocational expert (“VE”) Judith Najarian hypothetical questions based upon the medical record and the ALJ's subsequent RFC finding. AR 65-67. After asking the VE to contemplate an individual of the same age, education, and work background as Plaintiff, the VE determined that Plaintiff could perform work as it exists in the national economy. AR 65-67.[4]

         Medical Record

         The entire medical record was reviewed by the Court. AR 300-1074. The relevant medical evidence is referenced below as ...

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