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Espinoza v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

December 19, 2014

Graciela Espinoza, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

LESLIE A. BOWMAN, District Judge.

The plaintiff filed this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner for Social Security. The court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1383(c)(3).

The Magistrate Judge presides over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) having received the written consent of both parties. See FED.R.CIV.P. 73; (Doc. 13)

The court finds the final decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and is free from legal error.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In September of 2007, Espinoza filed an application for Supplemental Security Income benefits alleging disability due to panic attacks. (Tr. 96, 105) Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 52-55, 46-49)

Espinoza requested review and appeared without counsel at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Milan Dostal on September 9, 2009. (Tr. 291-293) In his decision, dated January 26, 2010, the ALJ found Espinoza was not disabled. (Tr. 16-23) Espinoza appealed and submitted additional exhibits, but the Appeals Council denied review making the decision of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 3-6); see 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481

Espinoza subsequently filed this action appealing the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a). (Doc. 1) She argues the ALJ erred at step three of the disability determination, failed to properly credit her subjective testimony of disability, failed to properly credit the opinion of her niece; and failed at step five to properly describe her impairments in his hypothetical to the vocational expert. (Doc. 40) In her response, the Commissioner argues generally that the decision of the ALJ was supported by substantial evidence and is free from legal error. (Doc. 43) Espinoza did not file a reply.

Claimant's Work History and Medical History

Espinoza was 42 years old when she appeared at her hearing before the ALJ. (Tr. 297) She has a seventh grade education. Id. She has never worked. Id. At the hearing, she explained she cannot work because "I get anxiety that I can't be around people." (Tr. 301)

Espinoza traces her anxiety to 2002 when her sister died and she took custody of her sister's children. (Tr. 124) Since that time, she has received psychological treatment at La Frontera for depression and anxiety. (Tr. 275)

In May of 2003, Espinoza was evaluated by Bruce Roberts, M.D., at La Frontera Center. (Tr. 192) Roberts opined that Espinoza was "suffering from her first episode of major depression as a result of the ongoing stresses associated with caring for her deceased sister's five children." (Tr. 193) "She is also experiencing fairly severe anxiety with frequent panic attacks." Id. He diagnosed: Axis I, major depression, single episode, severe; panic disorder; Axis II, deferred; Axis III, hypertension; GERD; Axis IV, severe psychosocial stressors; Axis V, current GAF (Global Assessment of Functioning) of 50. (Tr. 194) Roberts prescribed Paxil in addition to the Klonopin she was taking for anxiety. Id.

In March of 2008, Espinoza was examined by state agency consulting psychologist, Noelle Rohen, Ph.D. (Tr. 124) Rohen diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, and dysthymic disorder. (Tr. 126) She explained, "Ms. Espinoza presents with history of mild depression and reportedly severe anxiety with agoraphobia." Id. "She asserts she has not left her house unaccompanied since 2002." Id. "If her self-report of symptom severity is accurate, she would be expected to have difficulty attending a job regularly, and concentrating adequately once she arrived." Id.

Rohen completed a Psychological/Psychiatric Medical Source Statement. (Tr. 127) She found Espinoza's understanding and memory mildly impaired. Id. She found her concentration and persistence adequate for "simple tasks for a couple hours at a time." Id. She further opined Espinoza "would do best in a position in which social interaction was limited." Id. She cautioned, however, that "[e]veryday difficulties appear to make her vomit" and "[s]he appears easily stressed." Id.

In April of 2008, non-examining state agency psychologist, Janine Foster-Valdez, Ph. D., reviewed the medical records and completed a Psychiatric Review Technique form. (Tr. 36, 110-122). She assessed affective disorder (dysthymic disorder) and anxiety-related disorder (generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder with agoraphobia). Id. She opined Espinoza was moderately limited in "maintaining social functioning" and mildly limited in activities of daily living and "maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace." Id. She noted no episodes of decompensation of extended duration. (Tr. 120).

Foster-Valdez completed a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment. (Tr. 106-108). She found Espinoza moderately limited in her "ability to understand and remember detailed instructions, " "ability to carry out detailed instructions, " "ability to work in coordination with... others, " "ability to complete a normal work week without interruptions, " "ability to interact appropriately with the general public, " "ability to get along with coworkers, " "ability to travel in unfamiliar places, " and "ability to set realistic goals." Id. She further opined Espinoza was "able to understand, remember and carry out simple instructions, " "able to make simple work related decisions, "able to "work with and around others, " and able to "deal with changes in a routine work setting." Id.

Eugene Campbell reviewed the medical record for the disability determination service and affirmed Foster-Valdez's opinion in July of 2008. (Tr. 34, 226)

In August of 2008, Espinoza was examined by Jerome Roghbaum, M.D., for the disability determination services. (Tr. 129-131) His diagnostic impression was as follows: anxiety/panic attacks, hypertension, and morbid obesity. (Tr. 131) Roghbaum completed a Medical Source Statement of Ability to do Work-Related Activities (Physical). (Tr. 132) He opined Espinoza has no physical limitations. Id.

Espinoza appeared without counsel at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Milan Dostal on September 9, 2009. (Tr. 291-293) She explained she has "panic attacks and... social phobia." (Tr. 298) She stated she cannot work because, "I get anxiety that I can't be around people." (Tr. 301)

She currently lives with her daughter, nephew, uncle, and boyfriend. (Tr. 301) None of them work; they are all disabled. (Tr. 301) Around the house, Espinoza cleans, washes dishes, and makes some meals. (Tr. 301) She does not drive. (Tr. 302) She has no hobbies, but she watches television for an hour or two in the evening. (Tr. 303) When she leaves the house to go shopping, she always goes with her niece. (Tr. 305)

In October of 2011, Blanca Reina, a licensed professional counselor, completed a Mental Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) Assessment. (Tr. 288) She found Espinoza markedly limited in 18 separate functional categories in the areas of understanding and memory, concentration and persistence, social interaction, and adaptation. (Tr. 288-289) She opined Espinoza would be unable to work more than five days per month due to mental illness. (Tr. 289)

CLAIM EVALUATION

Social Security Administration (SSA) regulations require that disability claims be evaluated pursuant to a five-step sequential process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). If so, then the claimant is not disabled, and benefits are denied. Id. If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the ALJ proceeds to step two which requires a determination of whether the claimant has a "medically severe impairment or combination of impairments." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

In making a determination at step two, the ALJ uses medical evidence to consider whether the claimant's impairment more than minimally limits or restricts his or her "physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Id. If the ALJ concludes the impairment is not severe, the claim is denied. Id. Upon a finding of severity, the ALJ proceeds to step three which requires a determination of whether the impairment meets or equals one of several listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App.1. If the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, then the claimant is presumed to be disabled, and no ...


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