United States District Court, D. Arizona
Douglas L. Rayes, United States District Judge.
to 42 U.S.C § 405(g), Plaintiff Tashivea Kirkendoll
appeals the final decision of Defendant the Commissioner of
the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”). The Court affirms.
applied for disability insurance benefits in September 2012,
alleging disability beginning December 10, 2011. (A.R. 28.)
After state agency denials, Kirkendoll appeared for a hearing
and testified before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). (Id. at 53.) Following the
hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Kirkendoll
was disabled for a two-year period from May 3, 2012 through
April 3, 2014, but that Kirkendoll experienced sufficient
improvement after April 3, 2014 to return to work.
(Id. at 28-44.) In doing so, the ALJ found that
Kirkendoll has a number of severe impairments, only one of
which is at issue in this appeal: Kirkendoll's Chiari I
malformation, which is a defect in the cerebellum-the part of
the brain that controls balance-that can cause headaches.
(Id. at 32; Doc. 17 at 3-5.) The ALJ's decision
became the Commissioner's final decision when the Social
Security Administration Appeals Council denied
Kirkendoll's request for review, and this appeal
followed. (A.R. 1-6.)
Standard of Review
On appeal, the district court does not review the ALJ's
decision de novo or determine whether the claimant is
disabled. Instead, the court reviews only those issues raised
by the party challenging the ALJ's decision and reverses
only if the decision is not supported by substantial evidence
or is based on harmful legal error. Orn v. Astrue,
495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007); Lewis v. Apfel,
236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence
is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and
relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a
whole. Orn, 495 F.3d at 630.
raises two issues on appeal: did the ALJ err in finding that
Kirkendoll (1) became disabled on May 3, 2012 instead of
December 10, 2011, and (2) improved sufficiently after April
3, 2014 that she could again engage in substantial gainful
activity? (Doc. 17 at 1; Doc. 19 at 1.) As previously noted,
this appeal focuses on the limiting effects of
Kirkendoll's Chiari I malformation. Therefore, the Court
considers whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
conclusion that the effects of Kirkendoll's Chiari I
malformation were not disabling before May 3, 2012 or after
April 3, 2014.
Disability Onset Date
did not err in finding that Kirkendoll became disabled on May
3, 2012 rather than December 10, 2011. Kirkendoll submitted
relatively few treatment records prior to May 2012 and,
although records before that date note the existence of
neuropathy and lower back pain, the record lacks evidence of
regular treatment for these conditions during that time.
(A.R. 34, 327-29.) In February 2012, Kirkendoll complained to
Dr. George Wang of numbness and tingling bilaterally in her
lower extremities and her neurological exam showed signs of
peripheral neuropathy, but her gait and station remained
normal. (Id. at 34, 287-88.) Further, Kirkendoll did
not have her initial consultation with Dr. Vikram Kumar, her
neurosurgeon, until August 2012, and even then she reported
that her legs had been shaky for only a couple months.
(Id. at 34, 306.) Based on this evidence, it was
reasonable for the ALJ to conclude that Kirkendoll would have
been seeking and receiving regular medical treatment for her
Chiari I malformation if its effects were disabling as early
as December 2011.
although Kirkendoll testified that she stopped working in
December 2011 because she could no longer stand long enough
to perform her job, the ALJ noted that earnings records
indicated Kirkendoll did not earn any noteworthy income since
2009. (Id. at 35, 171.) It therefore was reasonable
for the ALJ to infer that, at least prior to May 2012,
something other than the effects of Kirkendoll's Chari I
malformation kept her from working.
points to records that she experienced headaches prior to May
2012 as evidence that her disability began in December 2011.
(Doc. 19 at 2.) But simply because there is some evidence
contradicting the ALJ's conclusion does not mean that
there is not also substantial evidence supporting it. Nor
does the mere existence of symptoms automatically mean that
they are disabling. Kirkendoll essentially asks the Court to
reweigh the evidence, which is not within the Court's
purview. The Court finds no error.
Sufficient Medical Improvement
the Court considers whether substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's conclusion that Kirkendoll's impairments
improved sufficiently after April 3, 2014 to allow her to
return to work. A claimant is no longer entitled to
disability insurance benefits when (1) “there has been
any medical improvement in the [claimant's]
impairment” and (2) the claimant “is now able to
engage in substantial gainful activity.” 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(f)(1). When assessing whether a claimant has
experienced medical improvement, the ALJ must “compare
the current medical severity” of the claimant's
impairment to its severity “at the time of the most
recent favorable medical decision that [the claimant] w[as]
disabled or continued to be disabled.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1594(b)(7). This matter is a so-called “closed
period” case, meaning ...