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Montero v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

February 5, 2016

PATRICK H. MONTERO, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Social Security Administration Commissioner, Defendant.

AFFIRMING THE DECISION OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION COMMISSIONER

HELEN GILLMOR, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

This case involves the appeal of the Social Security Administration Commissioner’s denial of Supplemental Security Income benefits to Plaintiff Patrick H. Montero.

Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income on the grounds that injuries to his arms and wrists have prevented him from doing any work since November 1, 2010. The Social Security Administration denied his application. Following an administrative hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time through the date of the ALJ’s decision of November 12, 2013. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review and Plaintiff appealed to this Court.

The Court AFFIRMS the decision of the Social Security Administration Commissioner.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On June 30, 2011, Plaintiff Patrick H. Montero filed an application for Supplemental Security Income with the Social Security Administration. (Administrative Record (“AR”) at 110-16, 126, ECF No. 15).

On September 15, 2011, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff’s application. (AR at pp. 53-61, 75).

On November 7, 2011, Plaintiff moved for Reconsideration of the denial of his Supplemental Security Income Application. (AR at p. 79).

On November 2, 2012, Reconsideration was denied. (AR at pp. 63-73, 82-84).

On November 27, 2012, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (AR at p. 85).

On October 24, 2013, an ALJ conducted a hearing on Plaintiff’s Application. (AR at pp. 23-52).

On November 12, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff’s request for Supplemental Security Income. (AR at pp. 6-16).

On December 15, 2013, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ’s decision before the Appeals Council for the Social Security Administration. (AR at p. 4).

On March 27, 2015, the Appeals Council for the Social Security Administration denied further review of Plaintiff’s application and rendered a final administrative decision by the Commissioner of Social Security. (AR at pp. 1-3).

On May 26, 2015, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security’s final decision to deny Plaintiff’s application for Supplemental Security Income in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Complaint for Review of Supplemental Security Income Determination, ECF No. 1).

On September 8, 2015, the Magistrate Judge issued a briefing schedule. (ECF No. 20).

On October 5, 2015, Plaintiff filed PLAINTIFF’S OPENING BRIEF. (ECF No. 21).

On November 9, 2015, Defendant filed DEFENDANT’S ANSWERING BRIEF. (ECF No. 22).

On November 16, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Motion for an extension of 7 days to file the Reply Brief, which was granted. (ECF Nos. 23, 24).

On November 30, 2015, Plaintiff filed PLAINTIFF’S REPLY BRIEF. (ECF No. 25).

On February 3, 2016, the Court held a hearing on Plaintiff’s appeal of the decision of the Social Security Administration Commissioner.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on October 2, 1961 and is a high school graduate. (Administrative Record (“AR”) at p. 27, ECF No. 15). Plaintiff resides with his parents on the Island of Hawaii. (Id. at pp. 27-29, 36-37). Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income as a result of injuries to his wrists and arms. (Id. at p. 9). The claim was initially denied on September 15, 2011, and again upon reconsideration on November 2, 2012. (Id.) Plaintiff requested a hearing on his application and on October 24, 2013, Plaintiff testified before an Administrative Law Judge. (Id.)

Plaintiff testified that in the 1990's he was in a car accident that caused his wrists to be slammed into the dashboard, resulting in injuries. (Id. at pp. 32-33). Plaintiff also described a history of rotator cuff surgeries unrelated to his car accident. (Id. at pp. 43-44).

Plaintiff testified that the injuries and pain symptoms have increased over time. (Id. at pp. 32-33). Plaintiff had surgery on his left wrist on October 6, 2010. (Id. at p. 12). Plaintiff stated that as of November 1, 2010, he was no longer able to engage in his previous work as a tree trimmer and a construction laborer. (Id. at pp. 27-28, 33).

Plaintiff’s medical records reflected pain and weakness in both writs, carpal tunnel syndrome and decreased range of motion in both wrists, and swelling and mild separation of bones in the left wrist. (Id. at pp. 12-13, 338-39).

Plaintiff testified that he could still perform tasks with his right-dominant hand and was able to engage in most daily activities and tasks around the house. (Id. at pp. 34-36). Plaintiff testified that he had more pain and limitations in using his left hand. (AR at pp. 39-40).

The Administration Law Judge denied Plaintiff’s application for benefits, finding that although he could not perform his previous work, there was work that existed in significant numbers that Plaintiff could perform. (Id. at pp. 15-16). The Administration Law Judge relied on the testimony of a vocational expert to find that someone with Plaintiff’s limitations could perform work as a Flagger, Usher, Sandwich Board Carrier, or Boat Rental Clerk. (Id.)

Plaintiff sought review of the Administrative Law Judge’s decision with the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff's request for review and rendered a final administrative decision by the Commissioner of Social Security. (Id. at pp. 1-3).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A claimant is disabled under the Social Security Act if he or she is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which ... has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

A decision by the Commissioner of Social Security must be affirmed by the District Court if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).

Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Tylitzki v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993).

ANALYSIS

I. Applicable Law

The Social Security Administration has implemented regulations establishing when a person is disabled so as to be entitled to benefits under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 423, 1382c. The regulations establish a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if a claimant is disabled. The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration reviews a disability claim for Supplemental Security Income by evaluating the following:

(1) Is the claimant presently engaged in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step two.
(2) Is the claimant’s alleged impairment sufficiently severe to limit his ability to work? If not, the claimant is not disabled. If so, proceed to step three.
(3) Does the claimant’s impairment, or combination of impairments, meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, the claimant is disabled. If not, proceed to step four.
(4) Does the claimant possess the residual functional capacity to perform his past relevant work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step five.
(5) Does the claimant’s residual functional capacity, when considered with the claimant’s age, education, and work experience, allow him to adjust to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the claimant is disabled.

Stout v. Comm’r Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1052 (9th Cir. 2006) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920).

The claimant has the burden of proof at steps one through four, and the Commissioner has the burden of proof at step five. Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001).

II. The Administrative Law Judge Reviewed Plaintiff’s Application By Using the Five-Step Sequential Evaluation

At the Plaintiff’s October 24, 2013 administrative hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) for the Social Security Administration reviewed Plaintiff’s claim by engaging in the five-step sequential evaluation.

First, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date of his Application for Supplemental Security Income. (Administrative Record (“AR”) at p. 11, ECF No. 15).

Second, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had an impairment that limited his ability to work based on the injuries to his wrists following a car accident in the 1990's. (AR at pp. 12, 32-33, ECF No. 15). Plaintiff also reported a history of rotator cuff repair surgery, and a recent surgery in October 6, 2010 performed on his left wrist. (AR at pp. 12, 32-34, 43-44, ECF No. 15).

Plaintiff testified that he is right-hand dominant, and that he has pain in both his right and left hand, but his left hand is worse. (AR at pp. 12, 35, ECF No. 15). Plaintiff testified that he cannot grip with his left hand, and that his wrist pain is aggravated by doing basic tasks like getting dressed, bathing, driving, washing ...


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