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Hutcheson v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

September 1, 2017




         On March 16, 2016, Plaintiff Steven Dean Hutcheson (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiff filed his opening brief (“Plaintiff's Motion”) on November 30, 2016, (Doc. 19), Defendant filed their opposition on February 15, 2017, (Doc. 24), and Plaintiff filed his reply in support of Plaintiff's Motion on February 28, 2017, (Doc. 25). The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted without oral argument.[1]

         For the reasons provided herein, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's Motion, (Doc. 19), AFFIRMS the final decision of the Commissioner, and DISMISSES this case.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following includes the pertinent medical and procedural background for this matter. Plaintiff was born on July 21, 1962, and is currently 55 years old. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 159.) Plaintiff was a maintenance technician between 1995 and 2012. (AR 66.)

         On August 14, 2012, Plaintiff filed his claim for disability insurance benefits. (AR 159- 60.) In this claim, Plaintiff alleges that he became disabled on January 6, 2012. (AR 159.) Plaintiff stated that the following conditions limit his ability to work: rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and degenerative disc disease. (AR 59.)

         On November 25, 2012, Dr. Fariba Vesali examined Plaintiff. (AR 277.) As to Plaintiff's daily activities, Dr. Vesali stated in his report that Plaintiff “drives a car” and occasionally “does the grocery shopping, ” “dishes, ” and “laundry.” (AR 277.) Dr. Vesali observed that Plaintiff “is not in acute distress, ” “did not have any difficulties . . . tak[ing] off his shoes, put[ting] them on, and get[ting] on and off the exam table, ” and “pick[ed] up a paper clip from the table with each hand with no difficulties.” (AR 278.) Dr. Vesali further noted in his report that Plaintiff had full “grip strength, ” “[n]ormal muscle bulk and tone, ” normal sensory exam results, and no inflammation in bilateral upper or lower extremities. (AR 278-79.) Dr. Vesali ultimately opined that Plaintiff “should be able to” (1) “walk, stand, and sit six hours in an eight-hour day with normal breaks, ” (2) “lift/carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, ” and (3) “do frequent postural activities and frequent manipulative activities.” (AR 280.) Dr. Vesali also opined that Plaintiff has “no workplace environmental limitations, ” except that “[t]here is limitation to working in cold environments due to a history of rheumatoid arthritis.” (AR 280.)

         Dr. Daniel A. Watrous treated Plaintiff beginning in at least January 2012. (See AR 230- 62, 281-95, 325-89.) Dr. Watrous' treatment notes state that Plaintiff sometimes had moderate symptoms, such as moderate tenderness in his hands, wrists, shoulders, and knees. (See, e.g., AR 250, 256, 367, 377, 379.) However, Dr. Watrous' treatment notes generally state that Plaintiff had only mild symptoms. (See AR 230-62, 281-95, 325-81.) Dr. Watrous also stated in his January 30, 2013 treatment notes that Plaintiff was “[o]verall doing well, ” but his “joints are painful and stiff” if he “overdoes” activities “like washing care [sic] and doing manuel [sic] work.” (AR 287.)

         Dr. Watrous provided his opinion regarding Plaintiff's ability to do work-related activities in a medical source statement dated June 4, 2014. (AR 384-89.) In this opinion, Dr. Watrous opined that Plaintiff could only (1) sit, stand, or walk for thirty minutes at a time without interruption, (2) occasionally lift/carry up to ten pounds and never lift/carry more than ten pounds, (2) occasionally reach, handle, or push/pull and never finger, (3) never operate foot controls, (4) never climb ladders or scaffolds or balance, and only occasionally climb stairs and ramps, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl, and (5) never work at unprotected heights, move mechanical parts, in humid and wet conditions, in extreme temperature conditions, or with vibrations. (AR 384-89.)

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's claim initially on December 14, 2012, (AR 93-96), and again on reconsideration on June 18, 2013, (AR 98-102). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on July 1, 2013. (AR 105-06.)

         On June 10, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing regarding Plaintiff's claim (the “Hearing”). (See AR 29-58.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel at this Hearing. (See AR 29.) At the Hearing, Plaintiff testified that he can “cook and wash dishes” for “a short time, ” “do the laundry, ” and “go grocery shopping.” (AR 42.) Plaintiff also testified that he had “11 years of education, ” but that he can only “read and write” at “[a]bout [a] fifth grade level.” (AR 34.)

         The ALJ called a vocational expert (“VE”) to testify during the Hearing. (See AR 54-57.) The VE described Plaintiff's past work as a “maintenance repairer, building.” (AR 54.) In response to hypotheticals provided by the ALJ, the VE testified that the hypothetical individual could not perform Plaintiff's past work as actually or generally performed in the national economy. (See AR 54-55.) However, the VE testified that the hypothetical individual could perform other jobs, including “cashier II” and “information clerk.” (AR 55.)

         In a decision dated August 5, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 13-28.) The ALJ conducted the five-step sequential evaluation analysis set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. (See AR 18-24.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 6, 2012, the alleged onset date.” (AR 18.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and degenerative disc disease of the lumbosacral spine.” (AR 18.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (AR 18.)

         The ALJ next found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform light work . . . except he can frequently finger and feel, ” “occasionally climb ramps or stairs, ” and “occasionally crawl and crouch.” (AR 19.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff can “never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, ” and that he “must avoid workplace hazards, driving as a job task, and temperature extremes.” (AR 19.) The ALJ also stated the following regarding the June 4, 2014 opinion provided by Dr. Watrous:

[Dr. Watrous'] statement is inconsistent with Dr. Watrous' own progress notes documenting only mild symptoms. In addition, Dr. Watrous' opinion is inconsistent with the objective findings by Dr. Vesali who noted normal strength, no inflammation, normal sensation, and no observed difficulties or pain expression . . . . Moreover, Dr. Watrous' opinion is not consistent with [Plaintiff's] own admissions with regard to his hobbies, recreational activities, and household chores. [Plaintiff] is very active as he plays soccer, flies model helicopters, shops, drives, does the dishes and laundry, picks up after the dog, plays catch football with his kids, enjoys board games, cooks, visits parks, and visits family . . . . Considering the foregoing, the [ALJ] accords only limited weight to Dr. Watrous' opinion.

(AR 21.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “is unable to perform any past relevant work.” (AR 22.) Finally, the ALJ determined at step five that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform.” (AR 23.) Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “is not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act.” (AR 24.)

         Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision before the Appeals Council. (AR 11-12.) On January 15, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (AR 1-7.)

         Plaintiff then filed the Complaint in this Court on March 16, 2016. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiff filed Plaintiff's Motion on November 30, 2016, (Doc. 19), Defendant filed their opposition on February 15, 2017, (Doc. 24), and Plaintiff filed his reply in support of Plaintiff's Motion on February 28, 2017, (Doc. 25). As such, the briefing in this case is complete and this matter is ready for disposition.


         A. Applicable Law

         An individual is considered “disabled” for purposes of disability benefits if he or she is unable “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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). However, “[a]n individual shall be determined to be under 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, ...

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