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William W. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. California

September 4, 2019

WILLIAM W., II, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE RE: CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [DOCS. 9, 11.]

          HON. RUTH BERMUDEZ MONTENEGRO UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff William W., II ("Plaintiff) filed a Complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or "Commissioner") denying him social security disability insurance benefits.[1] (Doc. 1.) Presently before the Court are: (1) Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment ("MSJ") (Doc. 9); (2) Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment ("Cross-MSJ") (Doc. 11); (3) Defendant's Opposition to MSJ (Doc. 12); (4) Plaintiffs Opposition to Cross-MSJ (Doc. 13); (5) Plaintiffs Reply in Support of MSJ (Doc. 14); and (6) the Certified Administrative Record ("AR") (Doc. 7).

         The matter was referred to the undersigned for report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Civil Local Rule 72.1. After careful consideration of the moving and opposing papers, as well as the AR and applicable law, it is respectfully recommended that Defendant's Cross-MSJ be GRANTED, Plaintiffs MSJ be DENIED, and the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") be AFFIRMED.

         II. PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On December 2, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging onset of disability on January 28, 2014. (AR, at 154-59, 195.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (AR, at 46-76.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an ALJ, which took place on July 11, 2017. (AR, at 27-45.)

         At the hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff testified he was born September 24, 1962[2]and has an associate's degree and past work experience as a Licensed Vocational Nurse ("LVN"). (AR, at 31.) Plaintiff has not worked as an LVN since January 28, 2014. (AR, at 12, 31.) Plaintiff testified he is disabled due to left-eye blindness. (AR, at 32.) He reports no central vision in the left eye, only peripheral vision. (AR, at 32.) Despite left-eye blindness, Plaintiff can drive, read, watch television, and use a computer without difficulty during the day. (AR, at 33.)

         Plaintiff also claims he is unable to work due to post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), the symptoms of which are attributable to a military service-connected incident from 1986. (AR, at 33, 1036; Doc. 9-1, at 8-9.) According to Department of Veterans Affairs ("VA") medical records and Plaintiffs testimony before the ALJ, Plaintiff responded to an auto accident involving several of his friends while serving as an emergency room medic for the Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. (AR, at 33, 1036.) One of Plaintiff s friends died at the scene of the accident and one bled to death in front of Plaintiff. (AR, at 33, 1036.)

         Plaintiff takes medication to treat his PTSD; however, Plaintiff testified PTSD makes it difficult for him to understand and comprehend situations. (AR, at 34, 39.) Although Plaintiff believes his PTSD symptoms caused his termination from employment as an LVN, VA medical records state Plaintiffs former employer terminated him due to unprofessional conduct. (AR, at 34, 965.) According to Plaintiff, he has difficulty in many situations and is only able to focus for ten to fifteen minutes on any given task. (AR, at 34-35.) For instance, Plaintiff gets frustrated with everyday tasks such as setting up a printer or mounting a television on the wall and often relies upon his wife for assistance. (AR, at 34-35.) Plaintiff testified he has nightmares every night and experiences visual hallucinations, such as seeing images of dead people, approximately three or four times per month. (Id., at 40.) Notwithstanding the reported symptoms and limitations, Plaintiffs day-to-day activities are as follows: Plaintiff wakes up at 6:00 a.m., has coffee, soda and breakfast, and talks and watches television with his wife. (AR, at 35.) Plaintiff also takes walks, lasting from thirty minutes to one hour. (AR, at 36.) He plays computer games for ten to fifteen minutes at a time and occasionally goes out to lunch. (AR, at 36.)

         Plaintiff has a history of alcohol abuse. According to VA records, he visited a psychiatric emergency room in April 2014 related to his alcohol abuse. (AR, at 964.) Plaintiff is currently sober and attends Alcoholics Anonymous ("AA") meetings at least twice per week. (AR, at 36-37.) According to VA medical records, Plaintiff reported AA meetings are "invaluable for not only his alcohol use problems but also for his PTSD symptoms." (Id., at 1029.)

         On September 17, 2014, the VA issued Plaintiff a 100 percent disability rating (80 percent PTSD and 30 percent vision)[3] and found him eligible for "individual unemployability" effective February 1, 2014. (AR, at 999-1001.) The VA based its decision, in part, on a June 19, 2014 Disability Benefit Questionnaire ("DBQ") evaluating Plaintiff for PTSD. (AR, at 1001.) Psychologist Carol Randall, Ph.D., completed the June 2014 DBQ, which also reviewed an initial PTSD evaluation conducted by psychologist Richard E. Townsend on April 1, 2013.[4] (AR, at 549-559, 1025-1046.) The June 2014 DBQ diagnosed Plaintiff with PTSD and alcohol use disorder, finding Plaintiff suffers "[occupational and social impairment with deficiencies in most areas, such as work ... judgment, thinking and/or mood." (Id., at 1027.) Dr. Randall found it impossible to differentiate what portion of the occupational and social impairments are caused by PTSD and alcohol use disorder. (Id., stating, "[a]lthough a majority of the Veteran's current impairment in functioning is due to his PTSD symptoms, a portion of his dysfunction is also due to his Alcohol Use Disorder. Consequently, determination of proportion of impairment due specifically to each disorder would require resort to mere speculation.") The ALJ considered the VA rating and found Plaintiffs PTSD and left-eye blindness caused work-related functional limitations, but concluded these impairments do not preclude all work activity. (AR, at 12, 18-19.)

         The ALJ issued a decision on January 16, 2018, finding Plaintiff was not disabled during any period through the date of the decision. (AR, at 10-19.) On March 14, 2018, Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ decision. (AR, 146-149.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, wherein the ALJ's decision became final. (AR, 1-3.) This civil action followed.

         III. SUMMARY OF THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         To qualify for disability insurance benefits, a claimant must demonstrate a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that: (1) prevents him from engaging in substantial gainful activity; and (2) is expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). The impairment must render the claimant incapable of performing work he previously performed and incapable of performing any other substantial gainful employment in the national economy. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir.1999) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)). To decide if a claimant is entitled to benefits, an ALJ conducts a five-step sequential evaluation process as outlined in 20 C.F.R. §404.1520.

         Here, the ALJ analyzed Plaintiffs claim using the five-step process and concluded Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (AR, at 12.) At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff lacked any substantial gainful activity ("SGA") since January 28, 2014, the alleged onset of disability. (AR, at 12.) Analyzing step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff has severe impairments including PTSD, left-eye blindness, obesity, history of alcohol abuse, and major depressive disorder. (AR, at 12.) At step three, the ALJ determined Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or equal the severity of any of the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments enumerated in the Code of Federal Regulations. (AR, at 12.)

         Next, the ALJ assessed Plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC") and concluded Plaintiff can perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following limitations: "[h]e is limited to nonpublic work involving simple, routine tasks. He should not be exposed to hazards. He should have no more than occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors in a habituated setting. The claimant is limited to work which could be performed with monocular vision." (AR, at 14.) At step four, the ALJ considered Plaintiffs RFC and testimony of a vocational expert ("VE") in finding Plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work as an LVN. (AR, at 17.) Considering this same evidence at step five, the ALJ concluded jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including positions as a cleaner, dishwasher, and machine tender. (AR, at 19.) Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff does not have a disability as defined in the Social Security Act from January 24, 2014, through the date of his decision. (AR, at 19.)

         IV. DISPUTED ISSUES

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ's decision should be reversed or remanded, and raises the following issues:

1. Whether the AL J's decision is based on application of correct legal standards?
2. Whether the ALJ properly considered all evidence of record in issuing his decision?
3. Whether the ALJ properly considered opinions of Plaintiffs treating physicians and the VA?

         The Court focuses its analysis to issues two and three, as resolution of these issues is germane to the first issue.

         V. STAND ...


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