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K.C. v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. California

July 1, 2019

K.C., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Defendant.



         Plaintiff K.C. seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security Andrew M. Saul's[1] denial of his application for disability benefits under the Social Security Act. Dkt. No. 37. Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in failing to find that K.C.'s mental impairments were severe; improperly rejected medical evidence; improperly rejected K.C.'s testimony; and improperly rejected lay witness testimony. The Court FINDS that the ALJ did not err in any of these ways. Accordingly, the Court DENIES K.C.'s motion for summary judgment and GRANTS the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment. The Court AFFIRMS the decision of the ALJ.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Claimant

         K.C. was born in 1959 in Burma. AR 24. He has a high school education and formerly worked as an auto mechanic. AR 54, 195. He stopped working as an auto mechanic because he was too fatigued for the pace of the job, had difficulty getting along with supervisors, and felt pressured to work more quickly than he was able to. AR 55, 57, 66. He sometimes had difficulty sleeping due to thinking about Burma and feeling afraid. AR 67. He alleged disability beginning in February 2014 based on a combination of impairments including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis B, and right lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow). AR 193-200. K.C. is on the waiting list for a liver transplant. AR 288.

         B. Procedural History

         K.C. filed a social security disability claim on October 27, 2014, alleging disability beginning February 28, 2014. AR 171. The Social Security Administration denied his claim initially and again upon reconsideration. Id. An ALJ hearing was held in February 2016. AR 44. The ALJ denied K.C.'s claim for disability benefits. AR 27. The Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision. AR 2-6. K.C. now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). Both parties consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See Dkt. Nos. 10, 24, 28.

         C. Undisputed Medical Evidence

         1. Mental Impairments

         Dr. David Dahl evaluated K.C.'s mental health in December 2014. AR 358. He diagnosed K.C. with major depressive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. AR 393. He noted K.C.'s nightmares, conflicts with his grown children, difficulty making decisions, and low average intelligence. AR 391. Dr. Dahl indicated that K.C. could usually take care of personal hygiene and that K.C. had not received any inpatient or outpatient psychiatric treatment. AR 398-390. Dr. Dahl reported significant psychomotor retardation and some paranoia, dysphoric mood, and flat affect. AR 391. Dr. Dahl opined that K.C. could not handle his own funds. AR 394. State agency consultant Dr. H. Bilik, Psy.D. reviewed the record and noted that K.C. had no history of mental health treatment. AR 80.

         2. Physical Impairments

         K.C. has a history of tennis elbow. AR 309-310. Dr. Jay Ladenheim examined K.C. June 2012 and noted his history of hepatitis B and cirrhosis which were relatively stable with medication. AR 314. He opined that K.C. should avoid heavy exertion and lifting more than 20 pounds due to his persistent fatigue. AR 316. Dr. Burton Weaver also noted K.C.'s chronic fatigue, headaches, and memory issues in June 2012. AR 322-23. In May 2013, Dr. Landenheim opined that K.C. should not lift over 25 pounds. AR 355. In November 2014, Dr. Landenheim found that K.C.'s fatigue and headaches could be a result of depression or of his liver disease. AR 362. In March 2015, K.C. was treated for chronic headache and low blood pressure. AR 440. In December 2015, Dr. Landenheim reported that K.C. continued to have fatigue, headaches, and a loss of interest in activities. AR 483, 516. Dr. Landenheim opined that K.C. could lift up to 20 pounds occasionally. AR 517. State agency consultant Dr. Dann reviewed K.C.'s medical records and noted that K.C. was on the liver transplant list but that his good residual liver function would not place him high on the list. AR 83.

         D. The ALJ Hearing

         At the hearing, K.C. was represented by counsel Sonya Arrelano and was assisted by a Cantonese interpreter. AR 44. Harlan Stock, a vocational expert, also testified. AR 44.

         K.C. testified that he came to the United States from Burma in 1979. AR 52. His last job was as an auto mechanic, but he stopped working in 2014. AR 54. He stopped working because he had trouble getting along with his supervisors, he felt pressured to do more work more quickly, his supervisor was very critical, and he was too fatigued to keep up with the pace of work. AR 55-57. He could not work as quickly as his coworkers. AR 66. He needed breaks to rest every 15 to 30 minutes. AR 57. He frequently got headaches. AR 58. He used to fish and play golf often, but he has only fished once since filing for disability and only played golf four or five times, the last time playing only three holes. AR 59, 62. He had difficulty with focus and memory. AR 66. He had difficulty sleeping because he would think about his past in Burma and feel scared. AR 67. He was reluctant to discuss these experiences with a therapist. AR 67-68.

         A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. The VE testified that a person limited to medium exertional work could perform K.C.'s past work as an auto mechanic, but that a person limited to light work could not. AR 71-72. The VE testified that K.C. had skills from past work that would transfer to the light exertional work level. AR 72.

         K.C.'s wife, W.L., provided testimony via a questionnaire. TR 202. She stated that K.C. is often fatigued, has headaches, has difficulty sleeping and wakes up from nightmares, and has trouble concentrating. TR 202-205. She also stated that K.C. no longer socializes and has a short temper. TR 205-206. She checked the boxes for “lifting, ” “walking, ” “stair climbing, ” and “following instructions” as abilities affected by his impairments. TR 207. She stated that he is depressed and talks about death a lot. TR 208.

         E. The ...

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