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Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

May 21, 2014

Vicki Lou Johnson, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 6, 12)

JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Vicki Lou Johnson 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 Johnson's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 6), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 12). For the reasons stated below, the Court GRANTS Johnson's motion, DENIES the Commissioner's motion, and REMANDS for further proceedings and a new decision.

Background

Johnson was 51years old on her alleged disability onset date of June 30, 2010. She has a high school education and has taken specialized training courses in office management. Her work history consists of working as an at-home daycare provider for approximately nine years, an office manager for an automotive repair company for approximately eight years, and a registration representative at an emergency department for approximately one year. (AR 42, 195.) She is divorced, and has three grown children, two of whom were still living at home with her in February 2012. (AR 1205.) The record demonstrates that Johnson has a multitude of medical problems, including but not limited to: neck, shoulder, arm, and elbow pain; lower back pain; left knee pain; left ankle pain; right hand tremors; migraine headaches; a bleeding disorder; hemorrhoids; irritable bowel syndrome; asthma; and coronary artery disease.

In July 2011, Johnson protectively filed applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits. She alleges that she has been unable to work since June 30, 2010 due to neck pain, back pain, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, a bleeding disorder, inoperable bleeding hemorrhoids, clinical depression, tremors in her right hand, left ankle pain/swelling, high blood pressure, and headaches. (AR 171.) Johnson testified at the administrative hearing that she frequently drops things due to her hand tremors; she has difficulty sitting and standing for long periods; and she experiences pain in her left ankle, left knee, lower back, neck, and shoulders after standing for more than five minutes. (AR 42-43, 48, 51.) On a typical day, Johnson does minor household chores for short periods of time and with the help of her daughter, checks email, sews for 15-20 minutes at a time, goes to doctor appointments, and spends time sitting partially reclined with a heating pad on the back of her neck. (AR 44-49, 51.) She exercises for 30 minutes on a treadmill three days a week, resting for a couple of hours afterwards. (AR 48.)

On January 4, 2013, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Thomas Merrill held a hearing on Johnson's disability application. (AR 38-67.) Johnson appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel. Approximately two weeks later, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Johnson was not disabled under the Social Security Act from her alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 19-30.) Shortly thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Johnson's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-4.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Johnson filed the Complaint in this case on August 8, 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 Johnson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date of June 30, 2010. (AR 22.) At step two, the ALJ found that Johnson had the following severe impairments: "spondylosis[1] of the cervical and lumbar spine, mild; migraine[;] and hemorrhoids." ( Id. ) Conversely, the ALJ found that Johnson's "other complaints and diagnoses"-including hypertension, hyperlipidemia[2], osteopenia[3], asthma, ankle impairment, left knee and hip pain, and affective disorder-were nonsevere. (AR 22-24.) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Johnson's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 24.) Next, the ALJ determined that Johnson had the RFC to perform "light work, " as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), "except she can do no rapid repetitive work with her right hand." (AR 25.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Johnson was capable of performing her past relevant work as a hospital patient representative and an office manager. (AR 30.) The ALJ also found that Johnson could perform the job of dog breeder as generally performed in the national economy. ( Id. ) The ALJ concluded that Johnson had not been under a disability from the alleged onset date of June 30, 2010, 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, 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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