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Michelle L. H. v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California

November 1, 2019

MICHELLE L. H., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.





         Plaintiff Michelle L. H. (“Plaintiff”) applied for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits in May 20, 2015, alleging that she became disabled and unable to work on February 10, 2014 (about one month after delivering her son), due to migraine headaches. Administrative Record (“AR”) 162, 184.

         On November 8, 2018, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) conducted a hearing at which Plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). AR 33-68. On March 12, 2018, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. AR 14-28. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's headaches were a severe, medically determinable impairment. AR 20. The ALJ further found that despite her headaches, Plaintiff had a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with some non-exertional limitations, including “can concentrate for up to 2 hour periods of time, but limited to unskilled tasks in a non-public setting.” AR 21.

         Based on this RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as an accounting clerk or esthetician, but she could perform the jobs of office helper, mail clerk, and routing clerk. AR 26-17. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 28.



         Issue One: Whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC determination. (Dkt. 18, Joint Stipulation [“JS”] at 3.)

         Issue Two: Whether the ALJ erred in evaluating Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. (JS at 4.)

         Because Plaintiff's testimony, if credited, would constitute evidence that would factor into any RFC determination, the Court will address Issue Two first.



         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The ALJ's findings and decision should be upheld if they are free from legal error and are supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035 (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, the district court “must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). “If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, ” the reviewing court “may not substitute its judgment” for that of the Commissioner. Id at 720-21.



         A. ISSUE TWO: Plaintiffs Subjective Symptom Testimony.

         1. Summary of Plaintiffs Testimony.

         Plaintiff was born in 1972. AR 162. She started experiencing headaches in her 20s (i.e., approximately the 1990s). AR 40. Nevertheless, between 2000 and 2013, she worked as an accounting clerk and an esthetician. AR 37, 185, 230.

         Plaintiff stopped working in October 2013 due to her pregnancy. AR 37, 63, 184. Her son was born on January 1, 2014. AR 234. Before her pregnancy, she had six or seven migraines per month, and she called in sick to work “a lot.” AR 40-41. During her pregnancy, she had only one or two migraines. AR 43. After her son was born, she had “an average of 20 to 25” headaches a month. AR 41. The week of her menstrual cycle, she was “guaranteed to have migraines every day.” AR 41-42. The other headaches are on “scattered days throughout” each month. AR 42. “[A] lot of times” she would have headaches that lasted for as many as ten days straight, and those were not associated with her menstrual cycle. AR 42. On a typical day, she would wake up at 5:00 a.m. headache-free; she would try to “get as much as possible done” before something triggered a headache. AR 51. Her headaches “usually” started around mid-morning. AR 60. In a typical week, there were only “one or two days where [she felt] good.” AR 48.

         This has been a steady pattern for the “the last two or three years.” AR 41 (meaning approximately 2015 or 2016 through 2017). Her headaches have gotten “worse and worse” (meaning more frequent by about 3-5 per month) since she completed a Function Report in June 2015. AR 49-50.

         Her migraine headaches cause her to feel dizzy and vomit. AR 44, 54. They can be triggered by light, sounds, and scents. Id. Her doctors tried treating her headaches by putting her on hormones to simulate pregnancy, but that made her condition “worse.” AR 43. The only treatment she identified as effective was Botox injections, and that only provided about a month and half of relief (reducing headache days to 10-12 per month) when she first tried it.[2] AR 51-52. Taking Maxalt controlled the dizziness and vomiting, but she was incapacitated and needed to lie in bed due to pain. AR 59.

         She testified that despite her headaches, she was able to be the primary caregiver for her son (age 3 at the time of the hearing) and drive him to and from half-day pre-school two days each week. AR 45. Her teenage stepdaughter arrived home each weekday at 2:45 p.m.; the stepdaughter or Plaintiff's husband cared for Plaintiff's son if they were home and Plaintiff was having a migraine. See AR 45-46. If she was alone in the house and needed to lie in bed with a headache, her son would play in his room or lie in bed with her. Id. On “a lot” of occasions, her mom would drive over to help with childcare. AR 46. When asked, however, “Have you had times where you have a headaches, where you're not able to care for the child?” she responded, “I mean no. Not really.” Id. She added that “several” times, she had asked her husband to come home from work early or call- in sick. AR 47.

         She would go grocery shopping once a week. AR 48. On “several” nights each week, she could not cook dinner for her family. Id. Her husband and stepdaughter did a lot of household chores because “when [she has] a migraine, [she] cannot do anything.” AR 47.

         In a Headache Questionnaire completed in June 2015, she reported 20 headaches per month that were so severe, she needed to stay in bed in a dark room with no light or sound. AR 191.

         In a Function Report also from June 2015, Plaintiff reported no problems with personal care. AR 193. She could do laundry and light cleaning, but only for a few hours each week. AR 194. When experiencing a migraine, she was dizzy and vomiting; she could only walk a few steps; and she was unable to drive. AR 192, 197. She had a driver's license, however, and she drove her son to and from pre-school, to medical appointments, and for weekly grocery shopping. AR 56-57, 195-96.

         2. The ALJ's Treatment of ...

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