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Hickins v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

September 25, 2013

TRACEY HICKINS, Petitioner,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Respondent.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER INTRODUCTION

CANDY W. DALE, Judge.

Currently pending before the Court is Petitioner Tracey Hickins's request for review of the Respondent's denial of social security benefits, filed on February 25, 2008. (Dkt. 1.) The Court has reviewed the Petition and the Answer, the parties' memoranda, and the administrative record ("AR"), and for the reasons that follow, will affirm the decision of the Commissioner.

BACKGROUND

Tracey Hickins ("Petitioner") first applied for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on October 12, 2005, alleging disability beginning October 5, 2005, from her mixed connective tissue disease and lupus. This application was denied initially and on reconsideration. A hearing was conducted on May 17, 2007, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") James Pileggi. ALJ Pileggi heard testimony from Petitioner and from vocational expert Frances Kinley. (AR 268.)

Petitioner petitioned the Appeals Council for review of the ALJ's decision on December 15, 2007, which was denied on December 21, 2007. Having exhausted her administrative remedies, the Petitioner timely filed an appeal with the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. (AR 280.)

Petitioner's claim file was lost, along with the recording of the May 2007 hearing. Therefore, on September 9, 2008, the case was remanded pursuant to Sentence Six, for a de novo hearing to complete the record and for the ALJ to render a new decision.

In the interim, Petitioner filed a new disability application on December 14, 2007, again alleging disability beginning October 5, 2005, from her mixed connective tissue disease and lupus. This application was denied on February 15, 2008, and a request for hearing was filed on April 1, 2008. A new hearing, again before ALJ Pileggi, was held on November 14, 2008. ALJ Pileggi heard testimony from Petitioner and vocational expert William Reed. At this hearing, ALJ Pileggi considered the December 2007 application as well as the remand of the 2005 application. The ALJ denied Petitioner's claim on January 15, 2009, finding Petitioner was not disabled for the period October 6, 2005, through the date of his decision. (AR 12.)

The matter pending before the Western District of Pennsylvania was not reopened until September 14, 2011. Petitioner had, however, moved to Idaho in 2009. Consequently, the matter was transferred to this Court on September 14, 2011. This matter was delayed further because Petitioner initially appeared pro se, but later obtained pro bono counsel on July 23, 2012.

After moving to Idaho, Petitioner filed a third application for benefits and was awarded benefits with an onset date of July 2009. She is currently receiving disability benefits. Petitioner filed also a claim for 100% unemployability disability benefits from the Veteran's Administration (VA) and was awarded those benefits on November 19, 2010, retroactive to October 2005. However, these facts were not before ALJ Pileggi at the time of the second hearing in November of 2008, nor was the record supplemented before the Commissioner to include this information.

Petitioner was born in August of 1970. At the time of Petitioner's alleged onset date, October 2005, she was 35 years of age. Petitioner completed high school and two years of college, studying medical transcription. Petitioner's prior work experience includes work as an accounting assistant, medical records clerk, retail cashier, office helper, secretary, and a municipal tax collector.

SEQUENTIAL PROCESS

The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520, 416.920. At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is engaged in substantially gainful activity. The ALJ found Petitioner had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of October 2005. At step two, it must be determined whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found Petitioner's mixed connective tissue disorder, fibromyalgia, sleep apnea, chronic fatigue, lupus, obesity, and Sjogren's syndrome severe within the meaning of the Regulations.

Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that Petitioner's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria for any listed impairment. If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and determine, at step four, whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. The ALJ found the Petitioner did not retain the RFC to perform her past relevant work.

If a claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate at step five that the claimant retains the capacity to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant levels in the national economy, after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education and work experience. The ALJ determined that Petitioner retained the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a). As part of this determination, the ALJ found Petitioner could not perform any overhead reaching, constant fine and gross manipulation with her hands, or operate foot controls; could not crawl, kneel, climb or balance; and could not push or pull against resistance ...


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