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Soto-Hopkins v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 14, 2016

Sergio Enrique Soto-Hopkins, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Leslie A. Bowman United States Magistrate Judge.

         The plaintiff filed this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner for Social Security pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1)

         The Magistrate Judge presides over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) having received the written consent of both parties. (Doc. 14)

         The court finds the ALJ's decision that Soto-Hopkins can return to his previous work as a cook is supported by substantial evidence and free from legal error.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On January 31, 2012, Soto-Hopkins filed for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 16) He alleged disability beginning on January 1, 2009, due to “chronic sleep disorder, depression, anxiety, [and] seizures.” (Tr. 156) His claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 93-96; 98-100) Soto-Hopkins requested review and appeared without counsel at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Larry Johnson on November 21, 2013. (Tr. 38) In his decision, dated May 16, 2014, the ALJ found Soto-Hopkins was not disabled because he could return to his past work as a cook. (Tr. 16-31)

         Soto-Hopkins appealed and submitted an additional exhibit, but the Appeals Council denied review making the decision of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-6) Soto-Hopkins subsequently filed this action appealing that final decision. (Doc. 1) He argues the ALJ erred at step two of the disability analysis, erred at step three, failed to properly credit his subjective testimony of disability, and failed to properly evaluate his residual functional capacity. (Doc. 19)

         Claimant's Work History and Medical History

         Soto-Hopkins worked as a cook from 1990 to 2008. (Tr. 157) His last job was working as a cook at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. (Tr. 50) When his six-month contract ended, he “was tired of cooking and [] wanted to do something else.” (Tr. 51) He sought work elsewhere and has had “eight or ten” interviews, but he has not found another job. (Tr. 51) He received unemployment benefit for “three months maybe.” (Tr. 51) He states he cannot work now because he is “confused, ” and he does not “have the concentration.” (Tr. 52)

         In June of 2012, Vivienne J. Kattapong, M.D., reviewed the medical record for the disability determination service and offered an opinion of Soto-Hopkins's physical limitations. She noted that the medical record indicates that Soto-Hopkins has pseudoseizures but “[h]e is not being treated for epileptic seizures or for sleep apnea.” (Tr. 72) She concluded, “Work-related limitations stem largely from mental issues.” Id. “No severe somatic [medically determinable impairment] has been established.” Id.

         In June of 2012, Jaine Foster-Valdez, Ph.D., reviewed the medical record for the disability determination service and offered an opinion of Soto-Hopkins's mental limitations. She opined that Soto-Hopkins has an affective disorder and personality disorder. (Tr. 72-73) She evaluated his “B” listing criteria, which gauge the severity of his mental impairment. She found he has no restrictions of his daily activities; he has mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning; he has moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace; and there is insufficient evidence of decompensation. (Tr. 73) Foster-Valdez further opined that the medical evidence did not establish the presence of the “C” criteria, which are an alternative gauge of the extent of his mental impairment. (Tr. 73) She opined that “[Claimant] appears invested in presenting a negative impression but [the medical record] reflects that when [Claimant] is compliant [with treatment], attending [appointments] regularly and taking [prescriptions] as written, he does well. (Tr. 73)

         Foster-Valdez then analyzed Soto-Hopkins's mental residual functional capacity (RFC). She found he is moderately limited in his ability to interact appropriately with the general public; moderately limited in his ability to accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors; moderately limited in his ability to get along with co-workers; and moderately limited in his ability to respond to changes in the work setting. (Tr. 75-76) In essence, he is “easily stressed” and “tends to become irritable and demanding.” (Tr. 76) He is “[l]ikely to do best [with] limited social interaction.” (Tr. 76)

         In March of 2013, in response to Soto-Hopkins's request for reconsideration, Stephen Bailey, Ed.D., reviewed the medical record and Foster-Valdez's opinion. He wrote: “On [r]econ[sideration] the previous decision is endorsed as written.” (Doc. 87)

         Soto-Hopkins appeared without counsel before the ALJ on November 21, 2013. (Tr. 38) He testified that he last worked as a cook at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. (Tr. 50-51) He had two six-month contracts there. (Tr. 51) He stated, “I was tired of cooking and I wanted to do something else.” (Tr. 51) He continued, “I've been looking for a job.” (Tr. 51) He has had “about maybe eight, ten” job interviews, but he has not landed another job. (Tr. 51) He collected unemployment benefits for “three months maybe.” (Tr. 52)

         Soto-Hopkins testified that he cannot work because he lacks concentration and gets confused. (Tr. 52) He stated, “What I'm trying to say [is] I got real tired of cooking, ” (Tr. 53) “I wanted to do something else more easy, not the stress, because cooking is a lot of worry, you're doing lasagna, and then you're doing this and you're doing that.” (Tr. 53)

         Soto-Hopkins explained that he lived in transitional housing at The Living Center. (Tr. 55) When he was there, he volunteered as a cook at their Turtle Bay Café. (Tr. 55) They had a crock pot but not a proper stove. (Tr. 55)

         Soto-Hopkins further testified that he suffers from panic attacks and had them before when he worked at Davis-Monthan. (Tr. 56) They last from 15 to 30 minutes. (Tr. 59) His medication helps “sometimes.” (Tr. 59) He has chest pains often and can't sleep well. (Tr. 56) He also suffers from sleep apnea “since I was very, very young.” (Tr. 58)

         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; Baxter v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1391, 1395 (9th Cir. 1991). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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). 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); 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 further inquiry is necessary. Ramirez v Shalala, 8 F.3d 1449, 1452 (9th Cir. 1993). If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, evaluation proceeds to the next step.

         The fourth step requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant has sufficient residual functional capacity (RFC)[1] to perform past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). If yes, then the claim is denied. Id. If the claimant cannot perform any past work, then the ALJ must move to the fifth step, which requires consideration of the claimant's RFC to perform other substantial gainful work in the national economy in view of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         The ALJ's Findings

         At step one of the disability analysis, the ALJ found Soto-Hopkins “did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of January 1, 2009 through his date last insured of December 31, 2013.” (Tr. 18) At step two, he found Soto-Hopkins “had the ...


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