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Read v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

March 12, 2014

Edwin F. Read, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Edwin F. Read 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 Read's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 11), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 15). For the reasons stated below, the Court DENIES Read's motion, and GRANTS the Commissioner's motion.


Read was 38 years old on his alleged disability onset date of October 15, 2008. He is a high school graduate, and has received vocational training as an automobile mechanic. His work history includes working as a tire and oil changer, a laborer, a truck driver, an automobile reconditioner, a furniture factory line attendant, a vinyl-siding laborer, a school bus driver, a fast-food worker, and a products assembler. He last worked in October 2008, when he reinjured his shoulder, requiring surgery. He initially injured his shoulder in 2002, when he fell off a ladder.

Read lives with his wife and has three adult children. He is obese, and spends most of his days sitting at home watching television and doing simple household chores and repairs. (AR 60-61, 236-38, 255-56, 465-66.) In November 2007, Read's treating primary care provider noted that Read had gained approximately 150 pounds in the prior year and had a history of arthritis, gout, back problems, morning stiffness, and chronic pain in his shoulders. (AR 397.) The provider assessed Read with hypertension and morbid obesity. ( Id. ) Read also suffers from back and neck pain, sleep apnea, memory problems, and depression. He testified at the administrative hearing that his biggest impairments are his back and arm/shoulder pain, which make it difficult for him to bend, reach overhead, and sit or stand comfortably for more than approximately 30 minutes. (AR 52-58.)

In February 2010, Read filed applications for social security income and disability insurance benefits. In his disability application, he alleged that, starting on October 15, 2008, he has been unable to work due to left shoulder pain, chronic back pain, arthritis, gout, high blood pressure, memory problems, learning problems, sleep apnea, and depression. (AR 218-19.) Read's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was conducted on July 14, 2011 by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Debra Boudreau. (AR 40-76.) Read appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. On October 24, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Read was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from his alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 21-33.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Read's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-4.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Read filed the Complaint in this action on May 20, 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 Boudreau first determined that Read had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of October 15, 2008. (AR 24.) At step two, the ALJ found that Read had the following severe impairments: left shoulder arthritis, obesity, degenerative disc disease, and an organic mental disorder with an affective disorder. ( Id. ) Conversely, the ALJ found that Read's obstructive sleep apnea, fecal incontinence, gallstones, and gout were non-severe. (AR 24-25.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Read's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 25-26.)

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

[Read] is unable to climb ladders or scaffolds, but can frequently climb stairs and/or ramps as well as frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch[, ] or crawl. He can occasionally reach overhead with the non-dominant left upper extremity and has no other manipulative limitations. [He] is able to understand and remember one[-]to[-]three[-]step instructions and is able to persist at these instructions for two-hour blocks of time over a typical workday and work week in a low[-]stress setting (defined as limited to one[-]to[-]three[-]step instructions). He is able to interact appropriately with the public, co[]workers, and supervisors. He is able to manage changes typical in routine work and is able to plan and set goals.

(AR 27.) Given this RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that Read was capable of performing his past relevant work as a fast-food worker and an auto detailer. (AR 32.) Alternatively, and again considering the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that there are other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Read could perform, including courier, hotel housekeeper, cashier II, office helper, and office mail clerk. (AR 32-33.) The ALJ concluded that Read had not been under a disability from the alleged onset date of October 15, 2008 through the date of the decision. (AR 33.)

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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