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Kirkendoll v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 27, 2018

Tashivea Renee Kirkendoll, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Douglas L. Rayes, United States District Judge.

         Pursuant 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.

         I. Background

         Kirkendoll 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.)

         II. 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.

         III. Discussion

         Kirkendoll 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.

         A. Disability Onset Date

         The ALJ 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.

         Moreover, 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.

         Kirkendoll 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.

         B. Sufficient Medical Improvement

         Next, 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 ...


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