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Barca v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, Second Circuit

January 23, 2014

Michael Barca, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Michael Barca 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 his application for disability insurance benefits. Pending before the Court are Barca's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 9), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 12). For the reasons stated below, the Court DENIES Barca's motion, and GRANTS the Commissioner's motion.


Barca was 49 years old on his alleged disability onset date of June 28, 2008. After graduating from high school, he served in the Marines for approximately four years. (AR 35, 1087, 1283-84.) Thereafter, he was an emergency medical technician for approximately eight years. (AR 238.) Since 1996, he has held many jobs, including a road flagger, a security officer, a sales associate, a cook, a teacher's aide, a construction worker, and a taxi driver. (AR 36, 41-43, 238, 1094-95.) He claims he has been unable to hold most of these jobs for more than a few weeks. (AR 1283, 1287.)

As a child, Barca was physically abused by his father. (AR 1079, 1283, 1286.) He was married in 1994, and he and his wife had three children and adopted a fourth. (AR 523, 1283, 1289.) The couple had problems with their eldest son (AR 1283), and Barca told one of his medical providers that when this son was 14, he sexually molested the couple's then four-year-old son (AR 305, 344). In July 2008, Barca was fired from his job as a security officer, which he had held for almost five years, due to his theft from a client. (AR 256.) In January 2009, Barca was charged with arson of the family residence. ( Id. ) Around the same time, Barca's marriage ended in divorce, largely due to Barca's economic and vocational instability and his anger issues. (AR 1283.) In 2011, feeling despondent from his divorce and estrangement from his children, Barca attempted suicide by overdosing on his medications. (AR 1089-90, 1286, 1289.) At that time, he was living with his brother-in-law and his family, including nine children. (AR 40, 1098-99, 1105.) In June 2012, Barca was living alone in an apartment subsidized by a Veteran's Affairs ("VA") housing program. (AR 1074-75, 1289.) He saw his children infrequently but was well connected with a local church and close with his sisters. (AR 1286.)

Despite having gastric bypass surgery in 1998, Barca is morbidly obese. (AR 479, 482, 1082-83, 1287, 1657.) He suffers from depression, posttraumatic stress syndrome ("PTSD"), and cellulitis. He has nightmares, which prevent him from sleeping through the night. (AR 1079, 1289.) His cellulitis causes swelling in his legs if he sits or stands for extended periods, and his psychological problems result in problems concentrating and handling stress. (AR 36-37, 1076-78.)

In February 2009, Barca filed an application for social security disability insurance benefits. (AR 184-87.) Therein, he alleged that, starting on June 28, 2008, he has been unable to work due to PTSD, anxiety, cellulitis, and depression. (AR 186-87, 210.) He explained that, due to these conditions, he gets confused, has trouble remembering directions, and cannot follow instructions. (AR 210.) Barca's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he timely requested an administrative hearing. On April 11, 2011, a hearing was conducted by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Thomas Merrill. (AR 30-71.) Barca appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. (AR 61-68.) Soon after the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Barca was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from his alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 12-23.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Barca's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3.)

Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Barca appealed the ALJ's decision to this Court. On July 12, 2012, upon consideration of the Commissioner's assented-to motion for an order voluntarily remanding the claim for further administrative proceedings, the Court remanded the claim back to the Commissioner with instructions consistent with those outlined in the Commissioner's motion. (AR 1145-47.) Soon thereafter, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ, in compliance with the Court's order. (AR 1153-54.) The ALJ afforded Barca a second administrative hearing, which was held on December 13, 2012. (AR 1069-1116.) Approximately one month later, on January 18, 2013, the ALJ issued a new decision, again finding that Barca was not disabled. (AR 1044-59.) The decision became final, and Barca filed the Complaint in this case on May 2, 2013. (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 Merrill first determined that, although Barca had engaged in some work activity after the alleged disability onset date, he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA"). (AR 1046-47.) At step two, the ALJ found that Barca had the following severe impairments: depression, anxiety, and cluster B personality traits. (AR 1047.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Barca's hypertension, recurrent cellulitis of the right lower leg, and obesity, were non-severe. (AR 1047-49.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Barca's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 1049-51.)

Next, the ALJ determined that Barca had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations:

[Barca] retains the ability to understand and remember one[-]to[-]two[-]step tasks; he would be limited from high-stress tasks due to [a] low stress tolerance but otherwise he would be capable of sustaining concentration, persistence, or pace for two[-]hour blocks of time throughout an eight-hour workday and forty-hour workweek; he could collaborate with co[]workers or supervisors but should be limited from high-stress interactions with the public and co[]workers; and he could set goals, recognize hazards, travel, and manage routine changes.

(AR 1051.) Given this RFC, and relying on the VE's testimony from the April 2011 administrative hearing, the ALJ found that Barca was capable of performing his past relevant work as a road flagger and a sales associate. (AR 1057.) Alternatively, again relying on the VE's testimony from the April 2011 hearing, the ALJ found that there are other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Barca could perform, including the jobs of cleaner, warehouse worker, groundskeeper, courier, mail clerk, and chambermaid. (AR 1058.) The ALJ concluded that Barca had not been under a disability from the alleged onset date of June 28, 2008 through the date last insured of December 31, 2012. (AR 1059.)

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, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

In considering a Commissioner's disability decision, the court "review[s] the administrative record de novo to determine whether there is substantial evidence supporting the... decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard." Machadio v. Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir. 2002) (citing Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000)); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The court's factual review of the Commissioner's decision is thus limited to determining whether "substantial evidence" exists in the record to support such decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rivera v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 964, 967 (2d Cir. 1991); see Alston v. Sullivan, 904 F.2d 122, 126 (2d Cir. 1990) ("Where there is substantial evidence to support either position, the determination is one to be made by the fact[-]finder."). "Substantial evidence" is more than a mere scintilla; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 ...

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