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Jolene Marie Griggs v. Michael J. Astrue

November 26, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John M. Conroy United States Magistrate Judge


(Docs. 7, 12)

Plaintiff Jolene Marie Griggs brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act, requesting review and remand of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits. Pending before the Court are Griggs's Motion for Order Reversing the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. 7), and the Commissioner's Unconsented Motion for Voluntary Remand (Doc. 12). For the reasons stated below, the Court GRANTS the Commissioner's motion, and DENIES Griggs's motion, to the extent that it seeks reversal "for the payment of benefits." (Doc. 7-1 at 14.)


Griggs was twenty-seven years old on her alleged disability onset date of November 27, 2009. In May 2008, she attained a bachelor's degree in hospitality and tourism management. Her job history consists of working as a front desk clerk, a cashier, a registrar assistant, and a post office clerk. She has also worked as a nanny for her sister's children, in exchange for free board. (AR 468, 506.) Her parents are deceased, and during the relevant period, she lived with her sister and her sister's two children and then with her grandparents. (AR 468, 509-10.)

Starting in approximately 2008, Griggs experienced symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS)*fn1 , including difficulty walking in a straight line, intermittent vertigo, numbness in her hands, bouts of double vision, and concentration problems. (AR 40, 43-44, 325, 358, 506.) In October 2009, she was diagnosed with a remitting/relapsing type of MS. (AR 360, 369.) By November 2010, her symptoms included difficulty walking, leg pain, poor bladder control, and extreme fatigue. (AR 233, 389, 391, 546.) She reported in a Function Report that her only daily activities were lying in bed, using the bathroom, and going to doctors' appointments. (AR 241.) At the administrative hearing, Griggs testified that she suffers from severe pain and fatigue, forcing her to stay in bed all day on many days. (AR 34-35, 55.) The record demonstrates that she also suffers from restless leg syndrome, carpel tunnel syndrome, obesity, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.

In March 2010, Griggs filed an application for disability insurance benefits. Therein, she alleges that, starting on November 27, 2009, she has been unable to work due to MS, fibromyalgia, anxiety, carpel tunnel syndrome, depression, and restless leg syndrome. (AR 219.) She also alleges that she suffers from sleep problems; extreme fatigue; difficulty concentrating, focusing, and thinking; numbness in her hands, arms, legs, and feet; and vision problems. (AR 228.) Griggs's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing.

A hearing was conducted on July 15, 2011 by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Thomas Merrill. (AR 28-76.) Griggs appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. On July 26, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Griggs had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from her alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 19-27.) Several months later, the Appeals Council denied Griggs's request to review the ALJ's decision, making it the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Griggs filed the Complaint in this action on January 10, 2012. (Doc. 3.)

ALJ Decision

The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate disability claims. See Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 380-81 (2d Cir. 2004). The first step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is presently engaging in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If the claimant is not so engaged, step two requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a "severe impairment." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the ALJ finds that the claimant has a severe impairment, the third step requires the ALJ to make a determination as to whether the claimant's impairment "meets or equals" an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 ("the Listings"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). The claimant is presumptively disabled if the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment. Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984).

If the claimant is not presumptively disabled, the ALJ is required to determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which means the most the claimant can still do despite his or her mental and physical limitations based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(a)(1), 416.920(e), 416.945(a)(1). The fourth step requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant's RFC precludes the performance of his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). Finally, at the fifth step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can do "any other work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). The claimant bears the burden of proving his or her case at steps one through four, Butts, 388 F.3d at 383; and at step five, there is a "limited burden shift to the Commissioner" to "show that there is work in the national economy that the claimant can do," Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009) (clarifying that the burden shift to the Commissioner at step five is limited, and the Commissioner "need not provide additional evidence of the claimant's [RFC]").

Employing this sequential analysis, ALJ Merrill first determined that Griggs had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of November 27, 2009. (AR 21.) At step two, the ALJ found that Griggs had the severe impairments of MS and obesity. (Id.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Griggs's restless leg syndrome, fibromyalgia, and mental illness were non-severe. (AR 22-24.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Griggs's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 24.) Next, the ALJ determined that Griggs had the RFC to perform the full range of light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). (AR 24-26.) Given this RFC, and based on testimony from the VE, the ALJ found that Griggs was capable of performing her past relevant work as a room service clerk. (AR 26.) The ALJ concluded that Griggs had not been under a disability from the alleged onset date of November 27, 2009 through the date of the decision. (AR 26-27.)

Standard of Review

The Social Security Act defines the term "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. ยง 423(d)(1)(A). A person will be found disabled only if it is determined that his "impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work[,] but cannot, considering his age, education, ...

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