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Martin v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

February 19, 2014

David D. Martin, Sr., Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 10, 14)

JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff David Martin 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 supplemental security income ("SSI"). Pending before the Court are Martin'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 GRANTS Martin's motion, DENIES the Commissioner's motion, and REMANDS for further proceedings and a new decision.


Martin was 40 years old when he filed his SSI application on December 10, 2009. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade, but completed his GED years later. The record indicates that his parents physically abused him, and he was sexually abused by a family friend when he was between the ages of seven and seventeen. In 1996, when he was eighteen years old, Martin was incarcerated for seven years for lewd and lascivious behavior (fondling pre-teens). Soon after his release, he was again incarcerated, this time for burglary and larceny. He had other incarcerations, and his prison time was increased due to his violations of supervised release conditions. In the end, he was in and out of jail for approximately 20 years, ending in late 2009. (AR 201, 223.)

Martin's vocational history has been mainly in the construction/labor field, although he has also worked at Price Chopper, Burger King, and the Burlington Emergency Shelter. He has not held any job for an extended period, given his extensive incarceration. Martin is single and has three children. His two older children appear to have been placed in state custody soon after their births because of Martin's sex offender history. His youngest child was one year old on the date of the administrative hearing, and Martin was seeing him once a week. At that time, Martin was living with his fiancee. Martin receives food stamps and welfare, and lived in a homeless shelter at times during the relevant period.

Starting in late 2009, Martin reported severe back and neck pain with decreased range of motion, tenderness, and spasm. MRI testing, x-rays, and a bone scan revealed stenosis of the lumbar spine with disc herniation and moderate degenerative disc narrowing, among other findings. (AR 309, 314.) Epidural injections have not relieved Martin's pain, and his treating providers have recommended surgery. According to Martin, his pain causes significant limitations in his ability to stand, walk, twist, and lift; and he is unable to straighten his back completely. (AR 39, 186-93, 216-23.) He needs help taking a shower, is unable to stand long enough to prepare his own meals, and is able to lift and carry only approximately five pounds. (AR 39-41.) He also has mental impairments, and multiple providers have diagnosed him with posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and borderline intellectual functioning. ( See, e.g., AR 41, 455, 496, 566.)

On December 10, 2009, Martin protectively filed an application for SSI, alleging disability due to back problems.[1] (AR 81, 140, 177-78.) Later, he updated his application to assert that he has "lots of pain in [his] neck and shoulder on [the] right"; he "cannot lift [his] arm above [his] head"; and he has problems sleeping because of the pain. (AR 224.) His application was denied initially and on reconsideration. In November 2011, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Dory Sutker held a hearing on Martin's application. (AR 28-67.) Martin appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel. Soon thereafter, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Martin was not disabled under the Social Security Act since the date he filed his application. (AR 12-22.) The Appeals Council denied Martin's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-4.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Martin filed the Complaint in this action on April 12, 2013. (Doc. 1.)

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 Sutker first determined that Martin had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date of December 10, 2009. (AR 14.) At step two, the ALJ found that Martin had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical portions of the spine with spinal stenosis, anxiety disorder, depression, and borderline intellectual functioning. ( Id. ) Conversely, the ALJ found that Martin's asthma was not severe. (AR 15.) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Martin's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 15-17.) Next, the ALJ determined that Martin had the RFC to perform "light work, " as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except as follows:

[Martin] cannot climb ladders, ropes[, ] or scaffolds. He can occasional[ly] climb ramps and stairs and can occasionally stoop. He can frequently balance, kneel[, ] crouch[, ] and crawl. After sitting for one hour, he needs to stand for about [two] minutes. He can perform uncomplicated tasks in an environment that requires only superficial interaction with co[]workers and the public. He can collaborate with supervisors on routine issues.

(AR 17.) The ALJ found that Martin had no past relevant work. (AR 20.) Nonetheless, given his RFC, the ALJ found that Martin was capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including mail sorter, marker, assembler, order clerk, addresser, and document preparer. (AR 20-21.) The ALJ ...

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