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Uribe v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

November 22, 2017

MARIA URIBE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff brings this action seeking to overturn the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff and defendant consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Pursuant to the Case Management Order filed on June 29, 2016, on March 10, 2017, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation (“JS”) detailing each party's arguments and authorities. The Court has reviewed the administrative record (the “AR”) and the Joint Stipulation. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.


         Plaintiff filed for benefits on July 24, 2012. (AR 164-69.) Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (AR 66-101.) Thereafter, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (AR 117-18.) On September 15, 2014, ALJ Sally C. Reason held a hearing. (AR 33-65.) Plaintiff was present with counsel and testified at the hearing. (See id.)

         On October 14, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff benefits. (AR 16-27.) In the decision, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments neither meet nor equal any listing found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, subpart P, app'x 1. (AR 22.) Moreover, the ALJ determined that plaintiff possesses the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b)[, ] except she cannot walk on uneven terrain; she can never climb ladders or work at unprotected heights; and she can only occasionally climb ramps/stairs, balance, kneel, stoop, crouch, and crawl.” (AR 22.) In determining plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ rejected the conclusions of several of plaintiff's physicians, as well as plaintiff's own statements about her limitations insofar as they were inconsistent with the RFC. (AR 22-25.) Based on plaintiff's RFC and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff is capable of performing her prior work as a benefits manager or administrative assistant and is therefore not disabled. (AR 26-27.)

         On March 31, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review. (AR 1-6.) Plaintiff filed the instant complaint on June 3, 2016. (Dkt. 1.)


         Plaintiff raises four contentions in this action:

1. Whether the ALJ erred in evaluating plaintiff's physicians' opinions.
2. Whether the ALJ erred in determining which of plaintiff's impairments are severe.
3. Whether the ALJ erred in determining plaintiff's RFC.
4. Whether the ALJ erred in evaluating plaintiff's credibility.


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Administration's decisions to determine if: (1) the Administration's findings are supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the Administration used proper legal standards. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996) (citations omitted). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, “a court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Auckland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         If the evidence in the record can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion, the Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (citing Flaten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995)). However, even if substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the decision must be reversed if the proper legal standard was not applied. Howard ex rel. Wolff v. Barnhart, 341 F.3d 1006, 1014-15 (9th Cir. 2003); see also Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1279.


         Because plaintiff's credibility is critical to multiple issues within this decision, the Court discusses plaintiff's fourth contention first.

         A. Whether the ALJ Properly Evaluated Plaintiff's Credibility.

         1. ALJ's Decision

         In her decision, the ALJ rejected plaintiff's subjective complaints about her symptoms as follows:

As already explained, the claimant's subjective complaints and allegations in this case are largely unsubstantiated by medical abnormalities. Like the aforementioned imaging and other diagnostic testing, all of which was normal, the clinical findings noted throughout the record are essentially normal and, in this regard, cast significant doubt on the degree of limitation the claimant has alleged. For example, the aforementioned primary care physician, Dr. Wilson, noted upon examination of the claimant in January 2012 that she had no point tenderness along [her] cervical and thoracic spine, negative TMJ, no edema, no respiratory abnormalities, no cognitive impairment, and no other abnormalities (Exhibit 6F/5). The aforementioned neurologist, Dr. Cardenas, noted on examination in August 2012 that the claimant showed no apparent distress and had normal heart and lung sounds, no peripheral edema, normal speech, normal cognition/comprehension, normal cranial nerve function, normal muscle tone and bulk, full (5/5) motor power, normal reflexes, normal sensation, normal coordination, and a normal stance and gait (Exhibit 6F/14).
Similarly, despite reporting myriad subjective complaints, the claimant exhibited no objective deficits upon comprehensive examination by a consulting physician, A. Karamlou, M.D., at the State Agency's request in October 2012. Dr. Karamlou noted that the claimant was in no acute distress and had normal blood pressure, normal heart and lung sounds, an objectively normal musculoskeletal examination, and no neurologic abnormalities. Contrary to her above referenced allegations, the claimant's gait was noted to be normal and unassisted (Exhibit 8F/3). Her range of neck and back motion was normal (Exhibit 8F/3). There was no evidence of any paraspinal muscle spasm or radiculopathy (Exhibit 8F/3). Nor was there any evidence of joint inflammation or limitation in the range of motion of the claimant's shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands, hips, knees, and ankles (Exhibit 8F/4). Dr. Karamlou noted that the claimant had well preserved (5/5) grip strength, normal bulk and full (5/5) motor power throughout all four extremities, as well as normal reflexes, normal sensation, and normal coordination (Exhibit 8F/4).
The foregoing findings simply do not suggest the presence of any impairment that has been more limiting than found herein. A number of other inconsistencies cast additional doubt on the reliability of the claimant's subjective complaints and allegations in this case. For example, in connection with her application, the claimant alleged having “bilateral ear damage and brain damage” (as well as other “physical and mental impairments of that of an ‘ill elderly woman'” (Exhibit 6E/8). Yet, as detailed above, diagnostic workup indicates the claimant does not in fact have any brain or ear damage. Similarly, in connection with her appeal (in January 2013), the claimant alleged that she had recently been exposed to fluorescent light (notably, while “running several errands” for her family), and that she consequently developed “excruciating and severe headache[s], several vomiting episodes, physical pain, and total and physical weakness” (Exhibit 9E/8). If this were true, however, then one might reasonably expect to see some evidence of the need for hospitalization or other physician intervention at that time. Yet, a review of the record reveals no such evidence, suggesting the claimant may have overstated the severity of her alleged symptoms.
A number of other inconsistencies arose from the claimant's testimony at the hearing. For example, the claimant testified that she has been depressed, yet she acknowledged that she is not receiving any treatment for depression (despite the fact that she sees a psychiatrist), and she has expressly denied having any significant depression when specifically asked in the clinical context (Exhibit 7F/l & Hearing Record). She also testified that she is physically unable to do any exercise, yet she acknowledged that she does housework (e.g., vacuuming) and yard work (e.g., gardening) (Hearing Record). Additionally, she testified that she has very severe morning pain and stiffness, yet acknowledged that she leaves home every morning and takes her kids to school (Hearing Record).
More generally, the claimant's reported daily activities are not limited to the extent one would expect, given her subjective complaints and allegations in this case. In addition to taking her kids to school in the morning, as previously mentioned, the claimant has acknowledged she is able to dress, bathe, do household chores, use a computer to check her email, and spend time with others (Exhibit 7F/3). The evidence also indicates the claimant helps her kids get ready for school, prepares breakfast and lunch, cooks dinner, drives a car, regularly shops in stores for groceries and/or other items, watches television, plays board games, goes to church, and spends time with others (Exhibit 5E/1-6). Additionally, by her own report, the claimant does some yard work, helps her kids with their homework, talks daily with her mother and brother on the telephone, and maintains “great communication” with her kids' school teachers (Exhibit 6E/4, 7 & Hearing Record).
Also inconsistent with the claimant's allegations of ongoing, disabling symptoms is evidence of alleged symptom abatement in the treatment records. A review of the treatment records reveals the claimant acknowledged significant improvement after she started taking medication, gabapentin and Ritalin, reporting that she was only “very rarely” having symptoms and that she generally felt as though she had gotten her life back (Exhibit 9F/10). In fact, in December 2012, the claimant reportedly acknowledged that she was “very satisfied with her current symptoms” (Exhibit 9F/26-27). At that time, Dr. Chung noted: “[The claimant] is now focusing on exercise and increased activities to promote weight loss and add purpose and satisfaction to her life . . . . She now looks forward to dancing and enjoying her family” ...

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