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Garcia v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 19, 2019




         Jack Daniel Garcia (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying his 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 morbid obesity, bilateral knee meniscal tears, thoracic degenerative joint disease, cervical degenerative disc disease, asthma, anxiety, and depression. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Social Security appeal is granted and this matter shall be remanded for further administrative proceedings.



         Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on December 10, 2014, and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on December 12, 2014. (AR 237, 243.) Plaintiff's applications were initially denied on February 24, 2015, and denied upon reconsideration on June 30, 2015. (AR 87-118, 119-152.) Plaintiff requested and received a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Sharon L. Madsen (“the ALJ”). (AR 168-169, 170-178, 194-217.) Plaintiff appeared for a hearing on May 4, 2017. (AR 61-86.) On June 13, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 24-45.) On May 2, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1-7.)

         A. Hearing Testimony

         Plaintiff testified at the May 4, 2017 hearing with the assistance of counsel. (AR 61-86.) Plaintiff stated he weighed about 290 pounds but was unsure of his height. (AR 64.) Plaintiff is right-handed but injured his right hand the year before the hearing and had been working more with his left hand. (AR 64-65.) Plaintiff has two kids, ages twelve and thirteen. (AR 65.) He lives in a duplex with a roommate. (AR 65.) He does not drive. (AR 66.) His highest grade of education is a GED. (AR 66.)

         Plaintiff needs help dressing at times, specifically with buttoning his clothes. (AR 67.) Plaintiff does household chores, does not cook or microwave food, but does shop. (AR 67.) He does not participate in social activities such as with a church, family or friends. (AR 67.) When asked what he does in a typical day, Plaintiff was a bit unclear, but stated he watches very little TV, and just walks back and forth inside his house and eats. (AR 67.) He takes naps at times. (AR 68.) Plaintiff stated he does not spend any time on his phone or computer, and does not use social media. (AR 68.)

         Plaintiff testified he previously worked conducting lawn maintenance and landscaping. (AR 68-69.) He then worked for Marriot doing hotel maintenance, such as fixing locks, minor plumbing, and other handyman work, and then the performed the same type of work for hospitals. (AR 69.) Plaintiff stated the heaviest item he would lift when doing landscaping was the lawnmowers which weighed approximately 40 to 50 pounds. (AR 69.) When doing maintenance, sometimes the tool bag would weigh between 40 and 60 pounds. (AR 70.)

         Plaintiff tore the meniscus in his right knee and testified it feels no different than the first time he injured it, with pain, stiffness, swelling, and locking, and Plaintiff stated he will likely need surgery. (AR 70.) The knee pain stays the same, not getting better or worse. (AR 71.) Plaintiff's left knee is about the same as the right, but with not as much locking. (AR 71.)

         Plaintiff's neck pain is his primary complaint, and he experiences pain, stiffness, discomfort, tension and nausea. (AR 71.) The pain in the neck starts in the center of his neck and radiates to the top of his head and all the way to his two fingers on each hand. (AR 72.) Plaintiff experiences the pain extending to the hands “[a]ll the time.” (AR 72.)

         Plaintiff has numbness and pain in his hands along with twitching. (AR 73.) Plaintiff's left hand has been worse, but he hasn't been able to use the right hand since he fell the previous year, with the pain from the fall focused in the palm of his right hand. (AR 73.)

         Plaintiff's lower back pain goes with his neck pain, and he is unable to get comfortable and unable to sit up straight. (AR 73.) Sitting is the hardest position for Plaintiff to get comfortable in considering his neck and back pain. (AR 73-74.) Plaintiff usually takes pain medications such as Ibuprofren, Baclofen, and Cyclobenzaprine, and uses hot water and other different therapy methods to get comfortable and alleviate pain, which helps at times. (AR 74.)

         Plaintiff's physical therapy helped at times. (AR 72.) As far as medical strategy for his neck, Plaintiff stated the doctors are still working it up, doing some x-rays, and his hand therapist is sending him back to the doctor to do more extensive work on the neck. (AR 72-73.)

         Plaintiff suffers from asthma and uses an inhaler daily. (AR 74.) Plaintiff does not smoke. (AR 74.) Plaintiff uses a nebulizer two to three times a day. (AR 74.) The air quality can affect his asthma. (AR 74.) Plaintiff stated he has trouble breathing when he sleeps but did not confirm whether he suffers from sleep apnea stating he does not use a sleep apnea mask. (AR 75.)

         Plaintiff testified he currently does not lift anything over five pounds, that he could carry a gallon of milk, but would not be able to carry a bag of potatoes because of his finger problems. (AR 75.) Plaintiff can sit for about twenty to thirty minutes before he must get up. (AR 75.) The amount of time Plaintiff can stand before he has to sit down fluctuates between ten to thirty minutes. (AR 76.) Plaintiff can walk short distances of about one block. (AR 76.) Plaintiff has some trouble putting on shoes and socks, and climbing stairs. (AR 76.) Plaintiff does not lift his arms over his head because it aggravates his shoulder and neck pain. (AR 76.) Plaintiff does okay with picking up small things such as pencils. (AR 77.) Plaintiff has trouble hanging onto stuff and dropping things. (AR 77.) Within a couple of minutes of using his hands, Plaintiff's hands become shaky and he loses grip strength. (AR 77.)

         Plaintiff testified that he suffers from anxiety daily, and that “[e]verything” makes him anxious. (AR 77.) When he gets anxious he feels panicked, his heart races, and he can't catch his breath. (AR 77.) Plaintiff stated he was experiencing such feelings during the hearing. (AR 77.) Plaintiff suffers from depression and feels very emotional. (AR 78.) Plaintiff testified he has problems getting along with people, and has received psychotherapy treatment. (AR 79.) In pyrotherapy, Plaintiff talks about his problems with stress, pain, and management of health care. (AR 79.)

         When examined by his attorney, Plaintiff answered that he received psychotherapy sessions once a month, to be increased to three times per month. (AR 79.) Plaintiff attends hand therapy twice a week. (AR 79.) Plaintiff sees his primary care physician once a month, and his workers compensation doctor once a month. (AR 80.) Plaintiff experiences side effects from medicine, including lethargy, hives, and dry mouth. (AR 80.) Plaintiff confirmed that because of his asthma, it would not be a good idea to work around dust, fumes, or extreme temperatures. (AR 81.) Plaintiff confirmed he always limps because of his knee problems, and has trouble with ramps, stairs, and ladders. (AR 81.) Plaintiff has trouble with repetitive work because of carpal tunnel syndrome and shaking hands. (AR 81.) Plaintiff confirmed he has extreme difficulty remembering things, concentrating, and sticking to tasks, and thus tries to stick to simple one and two-step tasks. (AR 81.)

         The Vocational Expert Michael A. Frank also testified. (AR 82-85.)

         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 March 1, 2019.
• Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of January 7, 2014.
• Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: morbid obesity, bilateral knee meniscal tears, thoracic degenerative joint disease, cervical degenerative disc disease, asthma, anxiety, and depression.[2]
• Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
• Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work, and he: (1) can lift and carry up to twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; (2) is able to stand and/or walk six to eight hours and sit for six to eight hours over the course of an eight-hour workday; (3) can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb; (4) must avoid concentrated exposure to heights, dangerous machinery, dust, gases, fumes, and ...

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