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Carvalho v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

June 30, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Social Security Commissioner, Defendant.



         This case involves Plaintiff Carla Jean Caravalho's[1] (“Plaintiff”) appeal of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's denial of Social Security disability insurance benefits to Plaintiff. Plaintiff filed her Opening Brief on December 15, 2016. ECF No. 21. Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Social Security Commissioner (“Defendant”), filed her Answering Brief on February 27, 2017. ECF No. 25. Plaintiff filed her Reply Brief on March 15, 2017. ECF No. 26.

         The Court held a hearing on this matter on May 24, 2017. Danielle R. Beaver, Esq. appeared on behalf of Plaintiff. Asim H. Modi, Esq. and Edric M. Ching, Esq. appeared on behalf of Defendant. After carefully considering the memoranda, arguments, and the record in this case, the Court AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiff's Application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits

         On February 21, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for Social Security disability insurance benefits, alleging that she became disabled on or about May 5, 2012.[2] AR at 134-35.[3] On or around September 13, 2013, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) sent Plaintiff a Notice of Disapproved Claim, informing Plaintiff that she did not qualify for benefits because she was not disabled under the SSA's rules. See Id. at 83-86. The Notice of Disapproved Claim stated that, based on Plaintiff's records, the SSA concluded that Plaintiff's alleged condition “was not disabling on any date through 6/30/13, when [she was] last insured for disability benefits.” Id. at 83.

         On or around October 23, 2013, Plaintiff requested reconsideration of the SSA's initial denial of disability benefits. See Id. at 89. Plaintiff did not submit additional evidence in connection with her request for reconsideration. See Id. at 90. The SSA subsequently sent Plaintiff a Notice of Reconsideration, dated January 30, 2014, denying her request for disability benefits after reconsideration of her claim. See Id. at 90-94. The Notice of Reconsideration stated, “Someone who did not make the first decision reviewed your case . . . and found that our first decision was correct.” Id. at 90.

         B. Plaintiff's Alleged Pain and Treatment

         Plaintiff's disability claim is based upon her alleged back and leg pain, as well as other related conditions. See Id. at 164. According to Plaintiff's medical records, Plaintiff began seeking treatment for her pain from David Arthurs, D.O. in May 2012. See Id. at 246-48. Plaintiff thereafter had appointments with Dr. Arthurs approximately once a month through June 2014. See Id. at 243-81, 308-42. Dr. Arthurs made treatment notes for each of these appointments with Plaintiff. See id.

         Dr. Arthurs' earliest treatment note for Plaintiff is dated May 23, 2012, and mentions the results of a 2005 MRI scan (“2005 MRI”) indicating that Plaintiff had “a ruptured L5-S1 disc with right-sided nerve compression.” Id. at 246. The 2005 MRI is part of the record in this case. See Id. at 236-42. Throughout his treatment of Plaintiff, Dr. Arthurs prescribed various pain medications to Plaintiff. See, e.g., id. at 247, 256, 258, 314.

         In February 2013, Plaintiff fell and sustained injuries to her left ankle and toes. See Id. at 255. According to Dr. Arthurs' notes from a March 7, 2013 follow-up appointment with Plaintiff, Dr. Arthurs began recommending that Plaintiff attempt physical therapy. See Id. at 258. Dr. Arthurs' notes from May 2012 through June 2013 do not indicate whether Plaintiff followed through with physical therapy.

         C. Plaintiff Requested a Hearing Before the Administrative Law Judge

         On or around February 13, 2014, Plaintiff requested a hearing by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). See Id. at 96. ALJ Tamara Turner-Jones held the hearing on August 6, 2014. See Id. at 25-59 (transcript of hearing). Frank Ury, Esq. represented Plaintiff at the hearing. See Id. at 25.

         At the hearing, Plaintiff testified about her daily activities and how she had difficulty completing household chores. See, e.g., id. at 33-37. Plaintiff testified that she fell three times “last year, ” but initially did not provide specific dates. See Id. at 40. Plaintiff later stated that her first fall occurred at or around the end of 2012 or beginning of 2013. See Id. at 47. Plaintiff also testified that she tried physical therapy, but stopped going because she “went down after a few visits from that.” Id. at 40. Again, Plaintiff did not provide specific dates for when she attempted physical therapy.

         In addition, Plaintiff testified about her past work experience. Plaintiff testified that her most recent employment was in 2011 as a real estate agent selling timeshares. See Id. at 48. Plaintiff also testified that she previously worked as a bank teller in 2009. See Id. at 48-49. In addition, Plaintiff worked full time as a real estate agent from April 2005 through 2006, and as a bank teller from 2001 to 2005. See Id. at 50. According to Plaintiff's Work History Report, Plaintiff also worked as a cleaner from February 2008 to January 2009. See Id. at 176, 180.

         A vocational expert testified after Plaintiff. See Id. at 50-58. The vocational expert testified regarding Plaintiff's ability to perform past relevant work. No other witnesses testified at the hearing.

         D. Dr. Arthurs' Medical Source Statements

         Dr. Arthurs submitted two medical source statements (“MSS”) to the SSA on Plaintiff's behalf. See Id. at 344-52. The first MSS is dated June 30, 2014 (“6/30/14 MSS”). See Id. at 344-49. Although unclear, it appears that Plaintiff submitted the 6/30/14 MSS before the hearing. Plaintiff submitted Dr. Arthurs' second MSS, dated August 12, 2014 (“8/12/14 MSS”), after the hearing. See Id. at 350-52. In the 6/30/14 MSS and the 8/12/14 MSS (collectively, “MSS Forms”), Dr. Arthurs appears to rely upon Plaintiff's 2005 MRI results for his conclusions therein. See Id. at 347-48, 351-52.

         E. The ALJ's Denied Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits

         On December 29, 2014, the ALJ denied Plaintiff Social Security disability insurance benefits, concluding that Plaintiff had not established a disability as of June 30, 2013. See Id. at 12-20. On or around January 23, 2015, Plaintiff submitted a request to the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision. See Id. at 7; see also Id. at 233-35. By letter dated May 10, 2016, the Appeals Council notified Plaintiff that it had denied her request, finding no reason to review the ALJ's decision. See Id. at 1-3. The Appeals Council also informed Plaintiff the Social Security Commissioner (“Commissioner”) had adopted the ALJ's decision as the final decision in Plaintiff's case. See Id. at 1. Plaintiff timely appealed.


         A district court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review final decisions of the Commissioner. A reviewing district court will not disturb a final decision by the Commissioner denying Social Security disability benefits if the decision is free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Dale v. Colvin, 823 F.3d 941, 943 (9th Cir. 2016) (reviewing a district court's decision de novo). Even if a decision is supported by substantial evidence, it “will still be set aside if the ALJ did not apply proper legal standards.” Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740 F.3d 519, 523 (9th Cir. 2014).

         In determining the existence of substantial evidence, the reviewing district court must consider the administrative record as a whole, weighing the evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's factual conclusions. See Id. “Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. “If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Id. (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Rather, courts “leave it to the ALJ to determine credibility, resolve conflicts ...

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