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Campbell v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

February 16, 2018




         Plaintiff Courtney Erin Harrison Campbell (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying her application for disability benefits pursuant to the Social Security Act. The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted, without oral argument, to Magistrate Judge Stanley A. Boone.[1]

         Plaintiff suffers from severe migraines, pituitary tumor, hypothyroidism, ADD, fatigue, agoraphobia with anxiety, and panic attacks. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Social Security appeal shall be denied.


         Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on May 1, 2013, alleging disability beginning May 27, 2011. (AR 188-191.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied on July 25, 2013, and denied upon reconsideration on October 3, 2013. (AR 77-82, 85-89.) Plaintiff requested and received a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Cynthia Floyd (“the ALJ”). Plaintiff appeared for a hearing on July 16, 2015. (AR 23-50.) On August 21, 2015, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 7-22.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on January 30, 2017. (AR 1-4.)

         A. Hearing Testimony

         Plaintiff testified at the hearing on July 16, 2015.[2] (AR 28-43.) She lives in a house with her sixteen year old daughter and her friend also lives there part of the time. (AR 29.) Her mother stays with her too. (AR 29.) She has 2 dogs. (AR 29.) She has a 12th grade education. (AR 30.)

         If she has gone to sleep at night, she usually wakes up at 4:00 a.m. and lays in bed for a time. (AR 39.) When she feels that she can get up, she goes into the kitchen and gets something to drink and then goes back to bed. (AR 40.) She does not watch TV or read. (AR 40.) She talks to her mom when she calls. (AR 40.) She talks to her daughter when her daughter comes into her room. (AR 40.) Her daughter is pretty self-sufficient. (AR 40.) She does not cook, so she asks that her friend bring her food. (AR 41.) She has help doing her banking. (AR 41-42.) She does not have any bills. (AR 42.) Her friends help her with banking, buying her food, getting her ready, and taking her to appointments. (AR 42.) She does not have many friends. (AR 42.) Her only friend besides her boyfriend is a friend who she talks to once a year on the phone. (AR 42.) She gets along “fine” with her friends and family. (AR 42.)

         She has not worked since May 2011 when she was working at an elementary school as an instructional aide. (AR 31.) She shadowed a child who had problems and tried to keep him out of trouble. (AR 31.) She stopped working there because she the school year ended and she had taken a lot of days off due to not feeling good. (AR 31-32.) She was hiding out in the bathrooms at school because she did not want to go into the breakroom with the other adults. (AR 32.) By the time the next school year started, she was feeling worse. (AR 32.) She had worked in 2004 and 2005 in a customer service job on the phone taking appeals and figuring out whether they were approved. (AR 32.) She also has an inactive license in real estate. (AR 31.)

         She has a driver's license and she drives once every 3 or 4 weeks. (AR 30.) She drives to the store, but she does not go in herself. (AR 30.) She takes somebody who goes in for her. (AR 30.) She stays in her house most of the time. (AR 30.) She is scared of people and she has anxiety and panic attacks in public places. (AR 30.) She even has anxiety and panic attacks when she is near her neighbor, so she does not go outside if her neighbor is outside. (AR 30.)

         She cannot work because she is “out of it” and on her bathroom floor for 15 to 20 days a month. (AR 33.) The day before the hearing she was trying to get some relief from her migraines so she took 11 showers during which she was sitting and laying on the shower floor. (AR 33.) After her headaches, she is weak, shaky, and she struggles and needs help getting ready. (AR 34.) She is awake all night because of her anxiety. (AR 33.) She cannot stay on task and she cannot remember things that people tell her. (AR 33-34.)

         She saw Dr. Mocsary, the neurologist, not long before the hearing and he prescribed a different antidepressant which did not work. (AR 36.) Plaintiff passed out with it. (AR 36.) She has been treated by Dr. Barber for her mental health for 4 months. (AR 37.) Dr. Barber increased her Clonazepam. (AR 37.) Dr. Barber was looking into taking over her prescription of Adderall, but Plaintiff has not been taking Adderall for a couple of months at the suggestion of the endocrinologist at UCLA. (AR 37.) Since she started seeing Dr. Barber, she has not had a decrease in anxiety symptoms. (AR 38.)

         A vocational expert (“VE”), Cheryl Chandler, also testified at the hearing. (AR 43-48.)

         B. ALJ Findings

• Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on June 30, 2015.
• Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of May 27, 2011, through her date last insured of June 30, 2015.
• Through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: migraine, chronic without aura, intractable and mild cervical spine degenerative disc disease.
• Through the date last insured, Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments.
• After careful consideration of the entire record, through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to lift and carry 50 lbs occasionally and 25 lbs frequently, stand and walk 6 hours, and sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. She must avoid concentrated exposure to excessive noise, bright lights, unprotected heights, and fast moving unprotected machinery, and traversing on uneven terrain.
• Through the date last insured, Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a Claims Clerk. This work did not require the performance of work related activities precluded by Plaintiff's RFC.
• Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from May 27, 2011, the alleged onset date, through June 30, 2015, the date last insured.

(AR 12-17.)


         To qualify for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, the claimant must show that 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). The Social Security Regulations set out a five step sequential evaluation process to be used in determining if a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Batson v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 359 F.3d 1190, 1194 (9th Cir. 2004). The five steps in the sequential evaluation in assessing whether the claimant is disabled are:

Step one: Is the claimant presently engaged in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step two.
Step two: Is the claimant's alleged impairment sufficiently severe to limit his or her ability to work? If so, proceed to step three. If not, the claimant is not disabled.
Step three: Does the claimant's impairment, or combination of impairments, meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R., pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1? If so, the claimant is disabled. If not, proceed to step four.
Step four: Does the claimant possess the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his or her past relevant work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step five.
Step five: Does the claimant's RFC, when considered with the claimant's age, education, and work experience, allow him or her to adjust to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the claimant is disabled.

Stout v. Commissioner, Social Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1052 (9th Cir. 2006).

         Congress has provided that an individual may obtain judicial review of any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security regarding entitlement to benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In reviewing findings of fact in respect to the denial of benefits, this court “reviews the Commissioner's final decision for substantial evidence, and the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1158 (9th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence” means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996) (internal quotations and citations omitted). “Substantial evidence is relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 955 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting Flaten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995)).

         “[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Hill, 698 F.3d at 1159 (quoting Robbins v. Social Security Administration, 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). However, it is not this Court's function to second guess the ALJ's conclusions and substitute the court's judgment for the ALJ's. See Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (“Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion that must be upheld.”).


         Plaintiff raises two issues in this appeal. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to find her mental impairments were not severe at step two of the sequential analysis; and (2) failing to develop the record regarding Plaintiff's mental impairments.

         A. Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ's Finding that Plaintiff's Mental Impairments are Non-Severe

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by finding that her mental impairments were not severe at step two of the sequential analysis. Defendant counters that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's mental ...

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