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Lee v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

January 23, 2014

Theresa Ann Lee, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W Colvin, Defendant.


DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Theresa Ann Lee seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision finding her not disabled. Doc. 21. For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny Plaintiff's request for relief.[1]

I. Background.

Plaintiff was 30 years old on the date that her alleged disability began. She has a GED and has worked as a receptionist and data entry clerk. Plaintiff alleges disability due to autonomic disorder and orthostatic hypotension. Doc. 21 at 4-5.

Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on June 10, 2009. Tr. 19. She also filed an application for supplemental security income on June 10, 2009. Id. Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on October 21, 2008, in both applications. Id. After a hearing on April 5, 2011, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued an opinion on July 22, 2011, finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. Plaintiff's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council and the ALJ's opinion became the Commissioner's final decision. Tr. 3.

II. Analysis.

Defendant's decision to deny benefits will be vacated "only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error." Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ committed legal error in three ways. First, she argues that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinion of a treating physician. Second, she argues that the ALJ improperly discounted her subjective testimony concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms. Finally, she contends that the ALJ erred in assessing her RFC. Because a vocational expert testified that the limitations outlined in the treating physician's assessment and Plaintiff's own testimony would preclude sustained work, Plaintiff urges the Court to remand for a computation of benefits. The Court will consider each argument in turn.

A. Plaintiff's Subjective Testimony.

In August 2009, Plaintiff completed a questionnaire about her daily activities, which involved caring for three young children, cooking, shopping, and driving. Tr. 220-31. In March 2010, Plaintiff completed a second questionnaire about her daily activities which reported that she had daily in-home support for her children, that meals were prepared by "support staff, " and that housework was performed by her children or by support staff. She asserted that she had no hobbies and engaged in practically no social activities, and that she spent the entire day on her couch or in bed. Tr. 244-52. At the hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that she left her job as a receptionist and data entry clerk in October 2008 because she had spent "two out of five days at the hospital and was not able to work." Tr. 45. She was unable to find a new job or complete an employment training class because she was wearing a holter monitor "and the cardiac stuff was out of control." Tr. 49. She testified that she was unable to work because of near-syncopal episodes that occur "three days a week or so" and that these episodes prevent her from leaving the house because she becomes fatigued. Tr. 48. She claimed to be bedridden on average for two days each week. Tr. 61. She testified that she could not do seated work because she might experience syncope when standing up from her seated position. Tr. 50-51.

The ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis to evaluate the credibility of a claimant's subjective 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.'" Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1036 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 341, 344 (9th Cir. 1991) (en banc)). If the claimant meets this first test, and there is no evidence of malingering, then 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." Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1284 (9th Cir. 1996). The ALJ may consider the following factors: the claimant's reputation for truthfulness, inconsistencies either in the claimant's testimony or between her testimony and her conduct, the claimant's daily activities, her work record, and testimony from physicians and third parties concerning the nature, severity, and effect of the symptoms of which claimant complains. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 958-59 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Light v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 119 F.3d 789, 792 (9th Cir. 1997)).

At the first step, the ALJ found that "the claimant's medically determinable impairment could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms[.]" Tr. 24. At step two, however, the ALJ concluded that the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms were not credible. Id. The ALJ relied on seven reasons discussed below to buttress his step-two conclusion. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(4) (ALJ must consider conflicts between a claimant's statements and signs and laboratory findings); Carmickle v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 553 F.3d 1155, 1161 (9th Cir. 2008) ("Contradiction with the medical record is a sufficient basis for rejecting the claimant's subjective testimony") (citation omitted).

First, the ALJ noted that there is little objective evidence to support the severity of the claimant's allegedly disabling conditions. The ALJ cited medical notes stating that "multiple testing in [the] past has failed to uncover [Plaintiff's] constellation of symptoms." Tr. 24, 420. Further, on August 12, 2009, Plaintiff's treating provider noted that Plaintiff had reported multiple symptoms, but significant work-up for connective tissue disorder and neurological work-up were negative. Tr. 429.

Second, in addition to the lack of objective medical evidence to support the claimant's alleged disabling complaints, the ALJ noted that physical examinations of the Plaintiff were normal and she generally had no neurological deficits. The ALJ cited to eight exhibits in the record in support of this finding. Tr. 25.

Third, the ALJ juxtaposed Plaintiff's subjective testimony that she was frequently bed-bound by disabling symptoms with evidence in the medical record that her headaches, syncope, and dizziness improved with treatment and that she could relieve ...

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