United States District Court, C.D. California, Western Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
DOUGLAS F. MCCORMICK UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
N. (“Plaintiff”) appeals from the Social Security
Commissioner's final decision denying her application for
Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”). The Commissioner's decision is
reversed and this case is remanded.
6, 2014, Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging disability
beginning April 1, 2014. See Dkt. 14, Administrative
Record (“AR”) 180-81. After being denied
initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a
hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). See AR 81-111. Plaintiff
appeared and testified at a hearing held on January 17, 2017.
See AR 34-66. On March 9, 2017, the ALJ issued a
written decision finding Plaintiff ineligible for disability
benefits. See AR 15-33.
found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of
degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, affective
disorder, degenerative joint disease of the bilateral hips
and sacroiliac joints with labral tears, and obesity.
See AR 20. The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform
light work with the following restrictions: “claimant
can only occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds; she can only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or
crawl; she can frequently balance; and she can understand,
remember, and carryout detailed but not complex
instructions.” AR 22. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff
could perform her past relevant work as a cashier II,
receptionist, and lodging attendant. See AR 27.
Consequently, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not
disabled under the Social Security Act. See AR 28.
Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision,
which became the final decision of the Commissioner.
See AR 1-6. This action followed. See Dkt.
argues that the ALJ improperly discounted her subjective
symptom testimony. See Dkt. 20, Joint Stipulation
(“JS”) at 3-6.
Court engages in a two-step analysis to review the ALJ's
evaluation of a claimant's symptom testimony.
“First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has
presented objective medical evidence of an underlying
impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the
pain or other symptoms alleged.” Garrison v.
Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1014 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation
omitted). “If the claimant satisfies the first step of
this analysis, and there is no evidence of malingering, the
ALJ can reject the claimant's testimony about the
severity of her symptoms only by offering specific, clear and
convincing reasons for doing so.” Id. at
1014-15 (citation omitted). “This is not an easy
requirement to meet: ‘The clear and convincing standard
is the most demanding required in Social Security
cases.'” Id. at 1015 (quoting Moore v.
Comm'r of SSA, 278 F.3d 920, 924 (9th Cir. 2002)).
the claimant's subjective statements may tell of greater
limitations than can medical evidence alone, ”
“the ALJ may not reject the claimant's statements
regarding her limitations merely because they are not
supported by objective evidence.” Tonapetyan v.
Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001); see
also Robbins v. SSA, 466 F.3d 880, 883 (9th Cir. 2006)
(“While an ALJ may find testimony not credible in part
or in whole, he or she may not disregard it solely because it
is not substantiated affirmatively by objective medical
instant case, Plaintiff alleged she could not work due to
disc displacement of the lumbar spine, “bulging disc,
” depression, and fibromyalgia. AR 193-201. She alleged
that she could not stand for longer than 20 minutes or sit
for longer than 30 minutes at a time. See AR 222-29,
239-46. She alleged trouble with staying awake and
concentrating because of her pain medication. See
id. At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that she stopped
working due to back pain. See AR 44, 50. She
testified that she could sit for up to 15 minutes and that
she takes OxyContin for pain. See AR 44-45, 51. She
testified to problems walking, bending, and stooping, and
stated she does very little work around the house.
See AR 45-46, 49-50.
found that Plaintiff's statements were “not
entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other
evidence in the record.” AR 23. The ALJ wrote that
Plaintiff's allegations “that she is unable to
sustain the physical demands of competitive employment are
not consistent with the objective medical evidence.” AR
23-24. Specifically, the ALJ wrote that although Plaintiff
reported a history of back pain and degenerative disc disease
for ten years, a November 2014 examination revealed she could
ambulate without an assistive device, had a normal gait, and
could tandem walk. See AR 24 (citing AR 408-14). The
ALJ referenced a second November 2014 hospital visit where
Plaintiff reported improvement after epidural steroid
injections, and upon physical examination demonstrated
tenderness at the sacroiliac joints but full muscle strength
and improved gait. See AR 24 (citing AR 514-22). The
ALJ also referenced a November 2016 MRI that showed a
probable posterior labral tear, but otherwise good pelvic
alignment and findings on the sacroiliac joints within normal
limits. See AR 25 (citing AR 667). The ALJ then went
through Plaintiff's mental health treatment records,
finding Plaintiff's allegations that she could not
sustain the mental demands of competitive employment to be
“not consistent with the objective medical
evidence.” AR 25. Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that
“the clinical findings simply fail to support the
alleged severity of symptoms and degree of limitation.”
Commissioner acknowledges that lack of objective medical
evidence cannot form the sole basis for discounting pain
testimony. See JS at 7-8 (citing Burch v.
Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680-81 (9th Cir. 2005)). The
Commissioner argues that the ALJ offered an additional reason
for discrediting Plaintiff: her allegations were inconsistent
with “other evidence” in the record. Id.
at 8 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3)). The Commissioner
points to the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's
conditions responded well to treatment. See id.
(citing AR 24-25 and Warre v. Comm'r of SSA, 439
F.3d 1001, 1006 (9th Cir. 2005) (“Impairments that can
be controlled effectively with medication are not
disabling.”)); see also Bettis v. Colvin, 649
Fed.Appx. 390, 391 (9th Cir. 2016) (upholding ALJ's
credibility finding where claimant's condition improved
with treatment). Specifically, the Commissioner argues that
contrary to Plaintiff's allegations, the record shows
that injections and pain medication provided her with pain
relief. See id.
evidence does not support a finding that Plaintiff's
statements were inconsistent. Plaintiff's allegations
that her pain treatment provided her with only partial and
temporary relief is consistent with the medical evidence of
record. For instance, in mid-2014 Plaintiff received lumbar
epidural steroid injections, lumbar medial branch blocks, a
radiofrequency ablation procedure from L4-S1, and a
sacroiliac joint injection. See AR 355, 358-63,
366-67. In each case, Plaintiff reported that she experienced
anywhere from a few hours to a week of relief before the pain
returned. See AR 347 (“[Plaintiff] feels
discouraged because she continues to experience 5/10
pain.”), 353 (“Both times the relief only lasted
a few hours and then her pain returned.”), 355
(“The patient reports about a ...