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Schraut v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, Second Circuit

November 1, 2013

Donna Schraut, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 10, 14)

JOHN M. CONRONY, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Donna Schraut 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 denying her application for disability insurance benefits. Pending before the Court are Schraut's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 10), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 14). For the reasons stated below, the Court DENIES Schraut's motion and GRANTS the Commissioner's motion.


Schraut was forty-four years old on her alleged disability onset date of October 25, 2008. She has a high school education and work experience as a restaurant supervisor, a cashier/stocker at a fast-food restaurant, a deli worker, a prep cook, a factory worker, and a daycare assistant. She was fired from her most recent two jobs for stealing money from her employer.

Schraut is divorced, and has two grown children and one grandchild. She lives in an apartment with her boyfriend. On a typical day, Schraut watches television, talks on the phone, visits friends, plays with her friend's children, works on the computer, cares for her kitten, and works on puzzle books. She is able to manage her own daily needs, but her boyfriend, who she claims is also disabled, does most of the cooking and household chores.

Schraut is morbidly obese, and suffers from lower back pain, leg pain, and left shoulder pain. She alleges that, as a result of this pain, she is unable to stand for longer than five minutes at a time, unable to sit for longer than one hour at a time, and unable to lift her arm above shoulder level. She uses a cane to assist with ambulation, and lies down for approximately two hours each day due to pain. She also suffers from anxiety and depression; and, to a lesser degree, sleep apnea, acid reflux, and daily headaches. She reports hearing voices, seeing shadows, and not wanting to go out in public. She alleges that her mind is always wandering, and that she has difficulty maintaining sufficient concentration to complete daily tasks and do activities such as watching television and playing bingo.

In September 2009, Schraut filed applications for social security income and disability insurance benefits. In her disability application, she alleged that, starting on October 25, 2008, she has been unable to work due to depression, anxiety, inability to walk, difficulty sitting and standing, concentration deficiencies, and sleep problems. (AR 179.) She stated that she stopped working on May 1, 2009 due to "mood and attitude" problems. ( Id. ) Schraut's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was conducted in July 2011 by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Paul Martin. (AR 39-79.) Schraut appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. A few weeks later, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Schraut was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 19-32.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Schraut's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Schraut filed the Complaint in this action. (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 that 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 his or her 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 Martin first determined that Schraut had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of October 25, 2008. (AR 22.) At step two, the ALJ found that Schraut had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease with mild stenosis at L4-5, morbid obesity, mild degenerative joint disease in the left shoulder with bursitis/tendonitis, major depression, and anxiety disorder. ( Id. ) The ALJ found that Schraut's obstructive sleep apnea, urinary incontinence, headaches, and hearing/speech deficits were nonsevere. (AR 23.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Schraut's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 23-24.)

Next, the ALJ determined that Schraut had the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except as follows:

[Schraut is able] to stand and/or walk for up to 2 hours in an 8-hour workday and to sit for up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. She is able to climb stairs and ramps on an occasional basis but is unable to climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She is able to perform occasional stooping, crouching, kneeling and crawling[, ] but is unable to perform any overhead work activity with her left, non-dominant arm/hand. She must avoid exposure to excessive wetness or humidity. [Schraut] is able to understand, remember and carry out simple one to three step tasks. She is generally able to concentrate and persist on tasks for two[-]hour blocks on a consistent basis, however, may experience episodic exacerbations of her symptoms of depression and anxiety, which temporarily undermine her ability to maintain cognitive efficiency, and result in the need for periodic, unscheduled rest breaks of a couple minutes['] duration several times each day. She is able to function in a position which requires only passing/casual interaction with the public. She is able to deal on a routine basis with co[]workers and supervisors and is able to deal with routine changes at work.

(AR 25-26.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Schraut was unable to perform her past relevant work as a cashier/stocker, prep cook, daycare assistant, and restaurant supervisor. (AR 30.) Nonetheless, based on testimony from the VE, the ALJ determined that Schraut could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including marker, solderer, assembly machine tender, and final inspector. (AR 31.) The ALJ concluded that Schraut had not been under a disability from her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. ( Id. )

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. § 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, ...

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