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Martino v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

January 23, 2019

Shannon Martino, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Shannon Martino filed the instant action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Magistrate Judge has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to the parties' consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 17.) The matter is now fully briefed before this Court. (Docs. 18-20.) For the following reasons, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. Procedural History

         On August 6, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for disability and disability insurance benefits (Administrative Record (AR) 221-24) and a Title XVI Application for Supplemental Security Income (AR 225-30). Plaintiff alleged disability as of January 1, 2008 due to permanent mental disability, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and personality disorder. (AR 98.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied on December 19, 2013 (AR 107), and upon reconsideration on July 2, 2014 (AR 132). After requesting a hearing (AR 168), on April 4, 2016, Plaintiff testified before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (AR 72-96). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on June 1, 2016. (AR 18-36.) The Appeals Counsel denied Plaintiff's Request for Review on September 11, 2017 (AR 18), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final for the purposes of review.

         Plaintiff filed the instant action on November 17, 2017. Plaintiff first claims that the ALJ did not account for all of Plaintiff's limitations when formulating the Residual Functioning Capacity (RFC). (Doc. 18 at 2.) Specifically, the ALJ failed to evaluate Plaintiff's limitations in the areas of concentration, persistence, and pace; and erroneously determined that Plaintiff's physical ailments were not severe. Id. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing reasons for finding that Plaintiff's subjective symptoms were not credible. Id.

         II. Summary of ALJ's Findings

         The burden of demonstrating disability lies with a claimant. Valentine v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009). To do so, a claimant must show that a physical or mental impairment precludes substantial gainful activity, and it is anticipated that this impairment will either result in death or last continuously for at least a year. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1).

         An ALJ determines whether a claimant is disabled through a five-step sequential evaluation. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. A claimant must establish: (1) she has not performed substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date (“step one”); (2) she has a severe impairment(s) (“step two”); and (3) her impairment(s) meets or equals the listed impairment(s) (“step three”). Id. “If the claimant satisfies these three steps, then the claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits. If the claimant has a severe impairment that does not meet or equal the severity of one of the ailments listed[, ] . . . the ALJ then proceeds to step four, which requires the ALJ to determine the claimant's . . . RFC.” Dominguez v. Colvin, 808 F.3d 403, 405 (9th Cir. 2015). “After developing the RFC, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can perform past relevant work.” Id. Then, at stage five, “the government has the burden of showing that the claimant could perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.” Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         In this case, at step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2008. (AR 23.)

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had severe impairments, including bipolar mood disorder and personality disorder. (AR 24.) But, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff's back, knee, and shoulder pain caused no more than minimal limitations, and therefore were not considered severe. Id.

         Then the ALJ decided-at step three-that the Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the listed impairments either singularly or in combination. Id. The ALJ said Plaintiff had not demonstrated her mental impairments met the criteria for either Listing 12.04 (Affective Disorders including Bipolar) or Listing 12.08 (Personality Disorders). Id. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff exhibited no marked restrictions in function and no periods of decompensation, both of which are necessary for a disability determination under paragraph B of the Listings for mental impairments. (AR 25.) Nor did Plaintiff meet the paragraph C requirements because there (1) were no periods of decompensation, (2) was no indication a change of environment would cause decompensation, (3) was no evidence that an increase in mental demands would cause Plaintiff to decompensate, and (4) was no record of a year-long history of Plaintiff requiring a highly supportive living arrangement. Id.

         At step four, the ALJ stated that given the limiting effects of her ailments, Plaintiff's RFC permitted a “full range of work at all exertional levels but with certain nonexertional limitations.” (AR 26.) These restrictions required that work needed to be “limited to unskilled tasks learned in 30 days or less not performed as a member of team or crew. Additionally, the assigned work must require no more than occasional, brief, intermittent, incidental contact with coworkers, supervisors, and public.” Id. Based on this assessment, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a cleaner. (AR 29.)

         Finally, at step five, given Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and that work for Plaintiff existed “in significant numbers in the national economy” as a stock clerk or dishwasher. (AR 30.)

         III. Plaintiff's Background, Statements, and Vocational Expert's Findings

         At the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was forty-five years old. (AR 79.) She had a high school education (AR 80) and previously worked as a janitor, waitress, and receptionist. (AR 93.) After the onset of her alleged disability, Plaintiff was incarcerated, but after she was released she worked three jobs.[1] (AR 75, 77.) Despite the short-term work, Plaintiff claimed she was disabled and unable to maintain employment because of migraines, back pain, and interpersonal difficulties. (AR 81-84.)

         The first time Plaintiff argued she suffered from debilitating physical impairments (i.e. back and neck pain) was at the administrative hearing. (AR 24, 84, 106, 131253-59.) At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that she had difficulty lifting objects with her right arm, “sometimes” had back pain, and was “sometimes” unable to sit for long periods. (AR 80.) However, she admitted she was able to lift about 20 pounds if able to utilize both hands. (AR 85.)

         While she could not pinpoint a precise amount of time she could sit or stand, she said that after standing about 20 minutes she would need a break, and sometimes could not sit for long periods. Id. Plaintiff also claimed she had migraines approximately 2-3 times a week. (AR 84.)

         Plaintiff alleged that her back pain increased after falling of a horse. (AR 86.) After the first fall, Plaintiff continued to ride but fell off the horse again in September 2015, causing more pain. Id. Plaintiff admitted that before the 2015 tumble off the horse, she was a quotidian runner. (AR 87.) After the fall, she stated she experienced shooting pain down her legs that increased when she kneeled or bent down. (AR 89.) This sensation had become more frequent in the months leading up to the hearing. (AR 90.)

         At home, Plaintiff stated that she lived with three dependent children, ages seventeen, twelve, and seven, as well as a disabled husband with heart disease. (AR 79.) She contended she cleaned her house “a lot, ” cooked, watched television, and read. (AR 85.) While doing these activities, however, she claimed that she was “up and down” approximately every 10-15 minutes because of her pain. (AR 85, 90.)

         As far as her mental impairments, Plaintiff was first diagnosed as bipolar and borderline personality in 2008-2009. (AR 308-377.) Further, she was deemed seriously ...

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