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Denney v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. California

August 28, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Mary Annette Denney (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying her application for supplemental security income pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs which were submitted without oral argument to the Honorable Gary S. Austin, United States Magistrate Judge.[2] See Docs. 16 and 17. Having reviewed the record as a whole, the Court finds that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and applicable law. Accordingly, Plaintiff's appeal is denied.

         II. Procedural Background

         On May 12, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits alleging disability beginning February 1, 2013. AR 15. The Commissioner denied the application initially on August 4, 2014, and upon reconsideration on October 20, 2014. AR 15. On October 23, 2014, Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. AR 15.

         Administrative Law Judge Timothy S. Snelling presided over an administrative hearing on July 15, 2016. AR 27-77. Plaintiff appeared and was represented by an attorney. AR 27. Impartial vocational expert Jose Chaparro (the “VE”) also testified. AR 27.

         On November 1, 2016, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application. AR 15-22. The Appeals Council denied review on March 22, 2018. AR 1-4. On May 20, 2018, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court. Doc. 1.

         III. Factual Background

         A. Plaintiff's Testimony

         Plaintiff (born September 9, 1960) completed high school and a year and a half of business college. AR 32-33. Later, she trained as a commercial driver and drove a truck crosscountry for one year. AR 33. Plaintiff had relinquished her class A driver's license since she was no longer physically able to drive a truck. AR 33-34.

         Plaintiff had multiple orthopedic problems including a congenital spine defect, arthritis of the cervical spine and shoulders, degenerative disc disease, scoliosis, degenerative joint disease of her hips, anxiety and depression. AR 59-60. She was overweight (5'7” tall, 224 pounds). AR 59.

         Plaintiff most recently worked as a shift lead at Love's truck stop. AR 37-38. Her job was to ensure that the drivers received all the customer care that they required. AR 38. Job responsibilities included laundering and providing towels and washcloths for showers, cleaning showers, maintaining the coffee bar, staffing the cashier position, stocking the convenience store, working in the cooler and supervising the other employees.[3] AR 38-43. Plaintiff loved her job but was fired after she took ten working days off for dental treatment. AR 40, 47-48. Although Plaintiff was disappointed to lose her job she testified that she would not likely have held the job for more than one additional year because the work was physically difficult and caused knee, hip and back pain. AR 52. In particular, her hip and shoulder pain limited her ability to stand at the cash register. AR 53.

         Plaintiff received chiropractic treatment for her back and hips and saw a medical doctor for treatment of her neck. AR 57. Her knee problems resolved after she realized that her antidepressants caused her legs to swell and made her knees painful. AR 57.

         Plaintiff could stand about 30 minutes before needing to sit, could walk about 300 feet before needing a break, and could sit for about an hour. AR 64-65. Because Plaintiff's cervical spine was unstable, walking caused severe facial pain. AR 65. Plaintiff could not look down because she cannot bend her neck forward. AR 66. She could lift a gallon of milk. AR 65-66. Reaching and bending were also difficult. AR 66-67.

         B. Medical Treatment

         The record includes notes of chiropractic treatment on four or five occasions in a period beginning December 28, 2012 and ending on June 26, 2013. AR 299-300. The minimal treatment notes are largely illegible.

         On February 16, 2014, Plaintiff sought treatment in the emergency department of Tulare Regional Medical Center for headache and neck pain that had lasted for three days. AR 522. Medical staff diagnosed a migraine headache and administered Dilaudid and Phenergan. AR 523.

         The administrative record includes extensive records of Plaintiff's physical and mental health treatment at the Tulare Community Health Clinic (TCHC). AR 303-04, 318-33, 374-427. Ravi Kumar, M.D., first saw Plaintiff as a new patient on March 12, 2014. AR 308-10. Plaintiff told Dr. Kumar that she had scoliosis for which she had receiver chiropractic neck adjustments three times weekly for thirty years, but was out of work and could no longer pay for chiropractic treatment. AR 308. Plaintiff was in pain and using marijuana to fall asleep at night. AR 308. Dr. Kumar diagnosed pain in Plaintiff's shoulder joint, cervicalgia, scoliosis and kyphoscoliosis, and referred Plaintiff for a CT scan of her cervical spine. AR 308. The CT scan revealed minimal left-sided neural foraminal narrowing at multiple levels secondary to hypertrophic change, straightened lordosis and degenerative disk space narrowing and spurring at ¶ 6-C7. AR 311. On March 21, 2014, Dr. Kumar reviewed the scan results with Plaintiff and prescribed cyclobenzaprine and hydrocodone with acetaminophen. AR 305-07.

         On May 29, 2014, Plaintiff began physical therapy at Tulare Regional Medical Center Rehabilitation Services. AR 507-19. Plaintiff stopped coming to therapy after June 19, 2014. AR 510.

         Dr. Kumar first noted chronic joint pain in the pelvic region on June 30, 2014. AR 325. X-rays of Plaintiff's hips revealed (1) mild degenerative changes with no acute fracture, dislocation or unusual effusion and (2) radiodensities of the pelvis consistent with phleboliths. AR 333. On September 3, 2014, Nkiruka Akabike, M.D., noted moderate chronic pain in multiple joints relieved by medication. AR 318.

         On September 17, 2014, Plaintiff reported depression and bilateral knee pain and instability. AR 427. X-rays of Plaintiff's left knee revealed minimal joint fluid and posterior superior patellar spurring but no fracture, dislocation or destructive lesion. AR 421. At the follow-up appointment on October 21, 2014, Dr. Akabike noted that Plaintiff's intermittent knee pain continued and observed that the left knee was mildly swollen and tender. AR 416, 418. Plaintiff limped. AR 418. Plaintiff's chronic problems included continuous amphetamine or psychostimulant dependence; malaise and fatigue; visual discomfort; cannabis dependence; shoulder joint and neck pain; and, idiopathic scoliosis and/or kyphoscoliosis. AR 416.

         On September 27, 2014, Plaintiff sought treatment for severe knee pain in the emergency department of Tulare Regional Medical Center. AR 493-504. Dr. Elton R. Tripp administered a Toradol injection and prescribed ibuprofen. AR 496, 500. Plaintiff was discharged with a diagnosis of knee pain of uncertain origin and directions to see her primary physician in the next day or two. AR 499. The record includes no evidence of follow-up treatment.

         On October 22, 2014, Rosandra Novelo Soleno, L.C.S.W., conducted an intake interview for substance abuse treatment. AR 413-15. Plaintiff had been placed on “no narcotics” status after a urine test. AR 414. Ms. Soleno diagnosed:

Axis I and II 296.33 Major depressive affective disorder, recurrent episode, severe degree, without mention of psychotic behavior
305.20 Nondependent cannabis abuse, unspecified use
305.00 Nondependent alcohol abuse, unspecified drinking Behavior
305.70 Nondependent amphetamine or related acting sympathomimetic abuse, unspecified use
Axis III Scoliosis and kyphoscoliosis, idiopathic, chronic Pain
Axis IV Severe. Problems with primary support group, occupation and housing
Axis V Current GAF = 50 Highest ...

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