United States District Court, D. Arizona
RENEE A. EKOLA, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
H. RUSSEL HOLLAND, District Judge.
This is an action for judicial review of the denial of disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Plaintiff has timely filed her opening brief,  to which defendant has responded. Oral argument was requested but is not deemed necessary.
Plaintiff is Renee A. Ekola. Defendant is Carolyn W. Colvin, acting Commissioner of Social Security.
On June 30, 2010, plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging that she became disabled on March 15, 2008, but plaintiff later amended her alleged onset date to April 5, 2009. Plaintiff alleged that she was disabled because of depression, corneal dystrophy, fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, insomnia, and anxiety. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. After a hearing on May 24, 2012, an administrative law judge (ALJ) denied plaintiff's claim. On July 9, 2013, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's June 22, 2012 decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On September 4, 2013, plaintiff commenced this action in which she asks the court to find that she is entitled to disability benefits.
Plaintiff was born on April 5, 1959. She was 53 years old at the time of the hearing. Plaintiff has a G.E.D., has taken some college courses, and has attended vocational school. Plaintiff's past relevant work includes work as a dental assistant and a lead dental assistant.
The ALT's Decision
The ALJ first determined that plaintiff met "the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013."
The ALJ then applied the five-step sequential analysis used to determine whether an individual is disabled.
At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had "not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 5, 2009, the alleged onset date...."
At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had "the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia; migraine headaches; irritable bowel syndrome; dysthymic disorder; and generalized anxiety disorder...." The ALJ found plaintiff's anterior basement dystrophy to be non-severe because the majority of treatment for this condition was performed prior to the alleged onset date; and plaintiff "denied worsening or blurred vision, or eye problems" during the relevant period.
At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did "not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1...." In particular, the ALJ considered Section 5.00 for digestive disorders, Section 11.00 for neurological disorders, and Section 12.00 for mental disorders. The ALJ considered the "paragraph B" criteria and found that plaintiff had mild restrictions of daily living; mild difficulties in social functioning; moderate difficulties with regard to concentration, persistence, or pace; and had had no episodes of decompensation.
"Between steps three and four, the ALJ must, as an intermediate step, assess the claimant's RFC." Bray v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin. , 554 F.3d 1219, 1222-23 (9th Cir. 2009). The ALJ found that plaintiff retained
the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant should never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She retains the ability to occasionally climb ramps and stairs, as well as kneel, crouch, and crawl. She can frequently balance and stoop. In addition, the claimant can occasionally engage in bilateral overhead reaching. She should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and hazards. Furthermore, the claimant can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions and make simple work related decisions.
The ALJ found plaintiff's pain and symptom statements less than credible because plaintiff "has not generally received the type of medical treatment one would expect for a totally disabled individual and the medical evidence of record is quite minimal." More specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff's treatment had been routine and conservative. The ALJ also found that plaintiff "refused medication typically prescribed for fibromyalgia without reason...." The ALJ noted that "the limited treatment is, in part, resulting from lack of finances and/or insurance, " but still found that "the evidence of record does not support [plaintiff's] allegations." The ALJ further noted that the fact that plaintiff's symptoms were relatively well controlled with medication and injections lessened her credibility. The ALJ also noted that in April 2010, plaintiff's fibromyalgia was deemed stable. And, the ALJ noted that plaintiff had had no actual mental health treatment and rarely took prescribed medication for her mental impairments.
The ALJ found it "[f]urther damaging to the claimant" that "treating physicians consistently observed that she appeared healthy and in no acute distress." The ALJ explained that such findings were "in sharp contrast" to ...