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Williams v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

March 31, 2014

Laurie Williams, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Laurie Williams 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 Williams's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 8), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 11). For the reasons stated below, I recommend that Williams's motion be DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion be GRANTED.


Williams was 41 years old on her alleged disability onset date of January 15, 2005. She has a GED and experience working as a nurse's aide, a store cashier/clerk, a cook/waitress, and a factory worker. She is unmarried and has no children. (AR 444.) She lives in a trailer with a friend. (AR 1154.)

Williams suffers from degenerative disc disease, obesity, depression, and diabetes mellitus. She reports that she seldom leaves her trailer; and her daily activities consist of watching television, talking on the phone, doing simple household chores, and walking her dog. (AR 130-31, 134, 444, 1160-61, 1167.) For approximately two years during the alleged disability period, Williams cared for her sister's two children, ages three and six. (AR 444-45, 809, 1154-55.) She also helped care for her mother while she underwent chemotherapy in Florida. (AR 1093-94.) In addition, Williams held several part-time jobs during the alleged disability period. (AR 969, 977.)

Williams does not drive due to a criminal history including six DUIs. (AR 443.) She attended alcohol counseling ("AA") until approximately 2007, and testified at the administrative hearing that she has not drank alcohol in approximately ten years. ( Id. ; AR 1169.) She also testified at the hearing that she quit smoking (AR 1159), but later admitted to having a cigarette that day because she was nervous (AR 1168). During much of the alleged disability period, Williams smoked approximately one pack of cigarettes daily, against her doctors' advice. ( See, e.g., AR 443, 908, 1029-30, 1110.)

In September 2008, Williams protectively filed applications for supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). (AR 220-30, 276-79.) In her disability application, she alleged that, beginning on January 15, 2005, she has been unable to work due to lower back pain and a sciatic nerve problem on the left side. (AR 119.) She stated that these conditions have prevented her from being able to lift, squat, or bend; walk distances; and climb stairs or ride in a car without pain. ( Id. ) Williams's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. In June 2010, a hearing was conducted by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Edward G. Hoban. (AR 173-89.) Williams appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel. Williams's aunt and a vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. In August 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Williams was not disabled from her alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 38-46.) The Decision Review Board affirmed that decision, and Williams subsequently appealed her claim to this Court. In March 2011, upon the Commissioner's unopposed motion for remand under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court remanded the claim to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings and a new decision. (AR 56-57.)

Meanwhile, in February 2011, Williams filed second applications for SSI and DIB, alleging disability as of August 27, 2010. (AR 237-38, 244-55.) These applications were also denied initially and on reconsideration. In March 2012, based on the Court's March 2011 remand order, the Appeals Council remanded Williams's original claim to the ALJ with instructions regarding further proceedings and a new decision. (AR 58-63.) The Council also determined that the February 2011 claim duplicated the original claim, and thus the ALJ was ordered to "associate" the two claims. (AR 62.) On December 4, 2012, a second administrative hearing was held by ALJ Hoban. (AR 1148-1204.) Williams again appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel. A VE also testified at the hearing. On February 22, 2013, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision finding that Williams became disabled on February 3, 2013, the date her age category changed, but was not disabled prior to that date. (AR 17-28.)

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, in his February - decision, ALJ Hoban first determined that Williams had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date of January 15, 2005. (AR 19.) At step two, the ALJ found that Williams had the severe impairments of a back disorder and obesity. ( Id. ) Conversely, the ALJ found that Williams's depression, gastroesophageal reflux disease, urinary incontinence, asthma, and diabetes with lower extremity neuropathy were non-severe. (AR 20-21.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Williams's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 21.) Next, the ALJ determined that Williams had the RFC to perform a range of sedentary-to-light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except as follows:

[Williams] can stand, walk, and sit for at least 8 hours during an 8-hour workday. [She] can frequently climb stairs, balance[, ] kneel, and crawl. She can occasionally climb ladders, stoop, and crouch. She requires a sit/stand option for at least 30-minute intervals during the day.

(AR 22.)

Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Williams was unable to perform her past relevant work as a nurse assistant, a sales clerk, a waitress, a tube-sizer/cutter, a short-order cook, and a home attendant. (AR 25.) The ALJ then determined that, prior to the alleged disability onset date, Williams was a younger individual (age 18-49), but on February 3, 2013, her age category changed to "an individual closely approaching advanced age." ( Id. ) At step five, based on testimony from the VE, the ALJ determined that, prior to February 3, 2013, Williams could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including the jobs of silver wrapper, telephone solicitor, and answering-service worker. (AR 26.) The ALJ concluded that, prior to February 3, 2013, Williams had not been under a disability, but on that date, she became disabled and continued to be disabled through the date of the decision. (AR 27.) Williams did not file exceptions to the ALJ's decision, and thus it became final after 60 days. On June 24, 2013, Williams filed the Complaint initiating this action. (Doc. 3.)

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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