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Casey v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 28, 2019

DEBORAH P. CASEY, Plaintiff,



         Deborah P. Casey (“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 carpal tunnel syndrome status post bilateral release surgery, acromioclavicular joint separation of the right shoulder, tendonitis of the right shoulder, osteoarthritis of the left shoulder, and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Social Security appeal shall be denied.


         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on October 2, 2013. (AR 99.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied on February 27, 2014, and denied upon reconsideration on July 21, 2014. (AR 129-133, 135-139.) Plaintiff requested and received a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Judith Kopec (“the ALJ”). Plaintiff appeared for a hearing on February 10, 2016. (AR 686-727.) On July 27, 2016, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 17-35.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on January 25, 2018. (AR 1-4.)

         A. Hearing Testimony

         Plaintiff testified at the February 10, 2016 hearing with the assistance of counsel. (AR 690-717.) Plaintiff was born on November 17, 1958. (AR 690.) She lives at his sister's but goes back and forth between there and her stepfather's home. (AR 690-691.) Plaintiff receives food stamps and help from her family. (AR 691-692.)

         Plaintiff has a high school diploma or GED and competed two years of schooling beyond high school. (AR 693.) Plaintiff received her hair stylist license in 1982. (AR 697.) She can read and write in English. (AR 693.) Plaintiff completed some of her application on the computer but had help from an individual at the Social Security Office. (AR 694-695.)

         Plaintiff is left handed. (AR 691.) She drives, but not very often because she usually does not have to go anywhere. (AR 692-693.) A lot of times she will get a ride from someone else, but occasionally she does drive. (AR 693.)

         Plaintiff worked as a preschool director and teacher from 1995 until June 2004 with Blanche Nosworthy. (AR 695.) She worked as a preschool director and teacher with Kelly Collins-Pipes from August 2005 until June of 2011. (AR 695.) Plaintiff has provided in-home supportive services as an IHSS worker. (AR 696.) Plaintiff was a hairstylist working weekends for about two years before she stopped working in 2011. (AR 696.) Plaintiff worked as a hairstylist until 2013 but did not earn $1, 000. a month for the whole year. (AR 697-698.)

         As an IHSS worker, Plaintiff would lift her client several times a day who weighed 175 pounds. (AR 698.) She would unpack groceries and do normal day to day living tasks. (AR 698.) Plaintiff would lift up to 50 pounds. (AR 699.)

         When she was working as a preschool teacher, Plaintiff would lift a four and a half year old child, between 35 and 40 pounds. (AR 699.) On occasion, she would lift or carry 50 pounds when there were large school purchases. (AR 699.) Plaintiff did not use a computer in her work. (AR 719-720.)

         Plaintiff is unable to work because she has been suffering from depression for quite some time. (AR 700.) Her depression makes it hard for her to wake up. (AR 700.) Plaintiff tries to have something prepared for breakfast when she wakes up in the morning because she is diabetic. (AR 701.) Her sister will have something left over and that's easiest because it is the hardest time to move in the morning. (AR 701.) It is hard to move because she has chronic pain in several places in her body. (AR 701.) Her most serious pain is in her lower back. (AR 701.) She has several things that have gotten worse as she has gotten older. (AR 701.) She has sciatica that goes down her left leg. (AR 701.) Her pain at the hearing was about a 6 out of 10. (AR 702.) Plaintiff was sweating like crazy because the pain was worse. (AR 702.)

         Plaintiff has good days and bad days. (AR 702.) A good day is when Plaintiff does not want to go right back to bed. (AR 702.) It is hard for Plaintiff to rate her pain because she is no longer taking pain medication and because of that she is not feeling very good. (AR 702.) Plaintiff could not say what her pain would be on a bad day. (AR 703.) Plaintiff was having a bad day the day of the hearing. (AR 703.) Her pain does not stay the same, somedays she is unable to get up. (AR 703.) Sometimes her pain goes higher than six. (AR 703.) Plaintiff does not want to get up about four days a week. (AR 704.) Her pain is never really better than it was the day of the hearing. (AR 704.)

         Plaintiff stopped taking her pain medication because she sees so many people with problems from it that she wanted to take a break from it. (AR 704.) She knows someone in her family who is addicted to pain medication. (AR 704.) She stopped taking her pain medication a little over a year ago. (AR 704.) Plaintiff stated that when she was taking medication she felt different. (AR 704.) In a way sometimes the medication can make your pain worse if you do not take them correctly. (AR 704-705.) Plaintiff will stand up against a wall or lay on something on the floor to help her pain. (AR 705.) Plaintiff will stand against the wall for maybe ten minutes and then she will either sit down or lay down. (AR 706.) She will alternate between standing, sitting, and laying. (AR 705.)

         Plaintiff can sit for twenty minutes before she has to change position. (AR 707.) When she gets up in the morning she feels like she cannot even walk to the bathroom or get dressed. (AR 707.) She does not ever go for walks. (AR 707.) Sometimes she will walk around the grocery store. (AR 707.) She is having problems with her feet due to her diabetes and neuropathy. (AR 707.) She also has a sprained ankle she never had taken care of. (AR 707.) She is having a lot of problems with her left foot. (AR 707.) She has pain whether or not she is walking. (AR 707-708.) Plaintiff has burning pain from the diabetes all the time. (AR 708.) Plaintiff is unable to walk a half block. (AR 708.)

         Plaintiff also has pain in her back and both shoulders. (AR 708, 716.) She has a tear in both shoulders and would rather not lift her arms above her head. (AR 708, 716.) Sometimes she is able to wash her hair. (AR 709.) Sometimes she has problems pulling up her pants because of her hands and shoulders. (AR 709.) Plaintiff had carpal tunnel surgery on both hands and still has problems with her hands. (AR 709.) Her fingertips are numb after the surgery. (AR 709.) The doctor said that it can take a year after the surgery for that to go away. (AR 717.) She gets a kink in her hands all the time that are painful. (AR 709-710.) She has trouble grasping things because she does not know when it is going to happen. (AR 710.) She is unable to open water bottles or jars but not because of pain. (AR 710.) She will usually have someone help her with buttons. (AR 710.) She does not have zippers on her clothing and uses pull-on pants. (AR 710.) She has someone help her tie her shoes. (AR 710.) Plaintiff can pick something up off the ground but it would be difficult for her. (AR 710.)

         Plaintiff used to type, but she really has never been able to type and does not type anymore. (AR 711.) She does not use a computer anymore because she cannot do the keys. (AR 711.)

         Plaintiff cannot lay on her shoulders so the doctor gave her something to help her sleep because she had to move around. (AR 705.) She wakes up all the time because she does not feel well. (AR 705.) She tries not to watch television during the day because she does not want to. (AR 711.) She likes to read. (AR 711.) She will read during the day and does household chores when she can. (AR 711.) Plaintiff will wipe off the counter; her sister will help her with laundry; she will do a few dishes; and will heat up a microwave meal. (AR 712.) She does not cook like she used to. (AR 712.)

         Plaintiff has difficulty writing. (AR 712.) Plaintiff took an hour to write an important card that she needed to write. (AR 712.) She had to take breaks while writing it. (AR 713.) She can not write very long before needing to take a break. (AR 713.) Plaintiff did fill out the first page of the function report. (AR 715.) Plaintiff had several people help her fill out her application. (AR 716.)

         Plaintiff will go grocery shopping occasionally. (AR 713.) She goes to church on Sundays about twice a month. (AR 713.) Her family will come to visit. (AR 713.) She will go visit them only seldomly. (AR 713.) It has been a very long time since Plaintiff went to a movie. (AR 713.) It is not worth having to go up the stairs, find somewhere to sit, and then have to sit. (AR 715.)

         Plaintiff has trouble making decisions when her blood sugar is off. (AR 714.) She tries to check her blood sugar. (AR 714.) Plaintiff can fall asleep but does not stay asleep long. (AR 714.) She tries to do some stretching. (AR 714.) She has a ball that she uses on her back on the ground and it helps. (AR 714.) The side effects from Plaintiff's medication have diminished, but if she does not take them she will have side effects. (AR 714.)

         David M. Dettmer, a vocational expert (“VE”) also testified at the hearing. (AR 718-726.)

         B.ALJ Findings

         The ALJ made the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.

• Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016.
• Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of June 10, 2011.
• Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: carpal tunnel syndrome status post bilateral release surgery, acromioclavicular joint separation of the right shoulder, tendonitis of the right shoulder, osteoarthritis of the left shoulder, and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine.
• Plaintiff does not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments.
• Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except with the following limitations. Plaintiff can lift, carry, push or pull 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; sit, stand, and walk for six hours each; frequently climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and can frequently handle and finger bilaterally.
• Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a preschool teacher and as a home health aide. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by Plaintiff's residual functional capacity.
• Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 10, 2011, through the date of this decision.

(AR 22-34.[2])


         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.”).

         IV. ...

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