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Madison v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

February 20, 2018

MARCIANA ALEXIS MADISON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DECISION OF COMMISSIONER

          ALEXANDER F. MacKINNON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. In accordance with the Court's case management order, the parties have filed memorandum briefs addressing the merits of the disputed issues. This matter now is ready for decision.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging that she became disabled and unable to work on August 31, 2009. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) conducted hearings on October 7, 2014 and July 16, 2015, at which Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) were present. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 33-78.) In a July 24, 2015 written decision that constitutes the Commissioner's final decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a restricted range of light work. The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff's RFC did not preclude her from performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled at any time from August 31, 2009, her alleged onset date, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (AR 14-27.)

         DISPUTED ISSUES

1. Whether the ALJ's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) finding was supported by substantial evidence.
2. Whether the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal section 1.02A of the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.[1]
3. Whether the ALJ properly assessed Plaintiff's subjective complaints.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. See Treichler v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014). Substantial evidence means “more than a mere scintilla” but less than a preponderance. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. See Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007).

         DISCUSSION

         1. Plaintiff's RFC

         The ALJ summarized Plaintiff's medical records, which reveal that Plaintiff is morbidly obese with a history of recurrent right knee dislocations and patellar instability. (AR 434, 453, 526-528.) A February 2013 MRI of Plaintiff's left knee revealed an anterior cruciate ligament tear. (AR 540-541.) A December 2013 MRI of Plaintiff's right knee revealed an anterior cruciate ligament tear and degenerative joint disease. (AR 551-552, 569-570.) In January 2014, Plaintiff underwent surgery on her right knee to repair the anterior cruciate ligament. (AR 498-499, 541, 552, 615.) June 2014 x-rays of Plaintiff's left knee showed moderate to severe degenerative joint disease with medial join space narrowing. (AR 469.) Examination notes indicate that Plaintiff's left knee has a limited range of motion. (AR 453.) Plaintiff's prescribed medications include Norco, MS Contin (morphine), Lidoderm patch, among others. (See AR 435.)

         After considering the record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: obesity; history of right patella dislocation with patellar instability, status post surgical repair in January 2014; internal derangement of the left knee; asthma; and bipolar disorder. (AR 19.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retained a RFC to perform a limited range of light work, an assessment that included the ability to stand or walk for two hours in an eight-hour day. (AR 21.)

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's determination that she retains the capacity to stand or walk for two hours in an eight-hour day, arguing that the ALJ failed to properly consider evidence supporting Plaintiff's disability. Plaintiff, however, does not point to any medical evidence contradicting the ALJ's RFC assessment, nor could she. Review of the record confirms that the medical experts opined that Plaintiff was able to stand or walk for at least two hours in an eight-hour day. (See AR 91, 108, 122, 134.) Dr. Vicente Bernabe, a Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon, found that Plaintiff was able to stand or walk continuously for one hour for a total of six hours in an eight-hour day. (AR 510, 519.)[2]

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly rejected the state agency medical consultants' opinions that she requires a cane for prolonged ambulation. (ECF No. 23 at 5.) This argument is unavailing for several reasons. To begin with, the ALJ was entitled to rely upon the contrary medical evidence to conclude Plaintiff did not need for an assistive device - namely the undisputed absence of a physician's prescription for an assistive device and Dr. Bernabe's opinion that no assistive device was medically necessary. (AR 510, 519.) In addition, the ALJ reasonably attributed less probative value to the state agency medical consultants' opinions because they were issued in May 2013 and November 2013, prior to Plaintiff's surgery to repair her right knee. (AR 22.) Finally, the question of whether Plaintiff needs a cane for prolonged ambulation is not determinative of Plaintiff's RFC assessment. Even the state agency medical consultants who opined that Plaintiff needed an assistive device provided an RFC assessment consistent with the ALJ's conclusion. That is, the state agency medical consultants found that Plaintiff was able to stand or walk for two hours in an eight-hour day. (AR 91, 108, 122, 134.)

         Next, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to consider the combination of her obesity and her bilateral knee impairments in making his RFC determination. (ECF No. 23 at 6.) Generally, where there is evidence of obesity, the ALJ must determine the effect of the claimant's obesity upon her other impairments, her ability to work, and her general health. See Celaya v. Halter, 332 F.3d 1177, 1182 (9th Cir. 2003); see also 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, ¶¶ 1.00Q, 3.00I & 4.00I (directing adjudicators to “consider any additional and cumulative effects of obesity” because obesity is “a medically determinable impairment often associated with” musculoskeletal, respiratory or cardiovascular impairments that “can be a major cause of disability in individuals with obesity, ” and stating that the combined effects of obesity with other impairments may be greater than expected without obesity).

         Here, the ALJ discharged that duty. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's obesity was one of her severe impairments, and stated that he considered the entire record including the effects of all of Plaintiff's impairments before rendering his RFC determination. (AR 19-25.) Although obesity can complicate musculoskeletal impairments, the ALJ adequately considered the combined functional effects of Plaintiff's obesity and other impairments in finding her capable of a restricted range of light work. Plaintiff fails to point to treatment notes, diagnoses, or any other medical evidence of any functional limitation caused by Plaintiff's obesity that the ALJ should have considered, but did not. See Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 684 (9th Cir. 2005) (the ALJ did not err because claimant “has not set forth, and there is no evidence in the record, of any functional limitations as a result of her obesity that the ALJ failed to consider.”); Harshman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2016 WL 2962212, at *5 (E.D. Cal. May 23, 2016) (ALJ did not err in assessing impact of claimant's obesity where claimant failed to point to evidence supporting contention that his obesity caused further limitations than those assessed by the ALJ); Trujillo v. Astrue, 2009 WL 4908839, at *6 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 11, 2009) (same).

         Plaintiff's remaining argument is that the ALJ's RFC assessment failed to take into account Plaintiff's subjective complaints. According to Plaintiff, she has “maintained consistently throughout the relevant time period … that she is not capable of being on her feet for more than a few minutes at a time and requires the use of an assistive device when standing or walking.” (ECF No. 23 at 5.) This argument essentially challenges the ALJ's rejection of Plaintiff's subjective limitations, a claim that is discussed below.

         2. Listing 1.02A

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in finding that her impairments did not meet or equal section 1.02A of the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. Specifically, she maintains that “when her obesity is considered in combination with her ...


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