United States District Court, C.D. California
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER
FREDERICK F. MUMM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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.)
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
March 31, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review. (AR 1-6.)
Plaintiff filed the instant complaint on June 3, 2016. (Dkt.
raises four contentions in this action:
1. Whether the ALJ erred in evaluating plaintiff's
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
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).
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.
plaintiff's credibility is critical to multiple issues
within this decision, the Court discusses plaintiff's
fourth contention first.
Whether the ALJ Properly Evaluated Plaintiff's
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” ...