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Streeter v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. California

January 6, 2020

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




         On September 18, 2018, Plaintiff Connie Streeter (“Plaintiff) filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying her applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). (Doc. 1.) The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted, without oral argument, to the Honorable Sheila K. Oberto, United States Magistrate Judge.[2]


         Plaintiff was born on August 1, 1971, completed high school, and previously worked as a hotel front desk clerk, a medical assistant, and as a stock clerk. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 24, 43, 44, 54, 58, 69, 80, 219, 224, 225, 240.) Plaintiff filed a claim for DIB on January 13, 2015, and for SSI payments on January 31, 2015, alleging she became disabled on April 3, 2010, due to chronic back pain, chronic knee pain, high blood pressure, obesity, fatigue, and depression. (AR 15, 54-81, 201-210, 219-228, 240-57.)

         At the hearing, Plaintiff amended the alleged onset date of disability to January 13, 2015 and withdrew her claim for DIB, which was dismissed. (AR 15, 44.)

         A. Relevant Medical Evidence[3]

         On May 12, 2017, orthopedic surgeon Arthur I. Garfinkel, M.D. performed a consultative physical examination of Plaintiff. (AR 573-75.) He noted Plaintiff was unable to work because of bilateral knee pain, bilateral shoulder pain, and numbness in both hands. (AR 573.) Plaintiff reported that her “upper extremity symptoms are secondary to chronically using a cane, ” which she has done for the past five years. (AR 573.)

         Upon examination, Dr. Garfinkel described Plaintiff as a “well-developed markedly obese female in no acute distress.” (AR 574.) Her gait was stiff and antalgic, she was unable to tandem walk, and she had difficulty with toe and heel standing. (AR 574.) Dr. Garfinkel found Plaintiff unable to squat because of bilateral knee pain. (AR 574.) She used a single-point cane to help with her balance. (AR 574.)

         With respect to Plaintiffs knees, Dr. Garfinkel noted they were “tender, swollen, and warm.” (AR 574.) He found crepitus with range of motion, which was guarded and decreased. (AR 574.) Dr. Garfinkel found Plaintiffs left knee had a “slight genu varum deformity.” (AR 574.) He diagnosed Plaintiff with osteoarthritis in both knees and with morbid obesity. (AR 574.)

         Dr. Garfinkel opined that Plaintiff should be precluded from activities requiring squatting, kneeling, climbing, balancing, creeping, and crawling. (AR 574.) Plaintiff should also be precluded from activities requiring standing and/or walking more than two hours in an eight-hour period, with no more than 30 minutes of weightbearing at any one time. (AR 575.) According to Dr. Garfinkel, Plaintiff should be allowed to change position as needed for comfort while sitting and should be limited in terms of pushing and pulling with her lower extremities. (AR 575.) He further opined that Plaintiffs cane was “medically necessary because of her knee pain as well as her poor balance from her morbid obesity, ” as she is “markedly top heavy.” (AR 575.)

         B. Administrative Proceedings

         The Commissioner denied Plaintiffs application for benefits initially on June 16, 2015, and again on reconsideration on August 26, 2015. (AR 99-104, 106-112.) Consequently, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (AR 113-129.) The ALJ conducted a hearing on May 30, 2017. (AR 40-52.). Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with her non-attorney representative and testified. (AR 43-47.) A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. (AR 47-51.)

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         In a decision dated November 15, 2017, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined by the Act. (AR 15-25.) The ALJ conducted the five-step disability analysis set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. (AR 18-25.) The ALJ decided that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 13, 2015, the amended alleged onset date (step one). (AR 18.) At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiffs following impairments to be severe: osteoarthritis and morbid obesity. (AR 18-19.) Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I (“the Listings”) (step three). (AR 19.)

         The ALJ then assessed Plaintiffs residual functional capacity (RFC)[4] and applied the RFC assessment at steps four and five. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (“Before we go from step three to step four, we assess your residual functional capacity . . . . We use this residual functional capacity assessment at both step four and step five when we evaluate your claim at these steps.”). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC:

to perform at a reduced level: sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. [ยงยง] 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except could not be weight bearing for more than thirty minute [sic] at any given time, changing positions as needed, and no pushing or pulling with the lower extremities. ...

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