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Huestis v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

August 25, 2014

Melissa Huestis, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 10, 13)

JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Melissa Huestis 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 Huestis's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 10), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 13). For the reasons stated below, the Court DENIES Huestis's motion, and GRANTS the Commissioner's motion.

Background

Huestis was 27 years old on her amended alleged disability onset date of February 2, 2010. She has a high school education and work experience as a bakery helper, conveyer feeder, sales clerk, route-delivery driver, counter attendant, cafeteria attendant, and fountain server. She is divorced and has three children. As of March 2012, Huestis was living in an apartment with her boyfriend and working in the Hannaford's bakery for between 11 and 35 hours each week. (AR 35, 39.)

The record reflects that Huestis had a traumatic childhood, and has a long history of mental problems. She was verbally and physically abused by her mother as a child and was also the victim of sexual abuse both as a child and an adult. (AR 549, 567, 723, 873, 995.) She has three sons who were ages ten, four, and three, respectively, as of the March 2012 administrative hearing. (AR 33.) Huestis was married to the father of her sons for ten years, but he was verbally and physically abusive toward her so she left him in 2009 or 2010. (AR 549, 567, 723, 873, 995.) In or around July 2010, Huestis's sons were removed from her custody by the Department for Children and Families ("DCF") apparently under suspicion that they were being physically abused. (AR 549-50, 723, 873.) As of March 2012, the children were living with Huestis's ex-husband (AR 33), and Huestis had not seen them for "roughly four months" (AR 34).

In October 2010, Huestis was admitted to Rutland Regional Medical Center for psychiatric care after advising her family counselor about a suicide plan. (AR 549-50, 562-63.) Upon her discharge three days later, she was diagnosed with adjustment disorder with depressed mood. (AR 563.) The hospital note describes her condition upon admission as follows:

[Huestis] was admitted... after presenting to the Emergency Department with her family counselor after becoming upset and depressed in the context of multiple psychosocial stressors and stating that she had a suicidal plan to drive her car into a truck. [Huestis] reports multiple social stressors at the time... which included financial difficulties with difficulty paying her electric bill, difficulty with legal issues in having to perform 100 hours of community service due to a felony charge she had[1], and inability for her or her live-in boyfriend to find work exacerbating the financial problems. Her children are currently in DCF custody which is also a source of stress for her.

(AR 562.) The hospital note also states that Huestis had stopped using her medications several days prior to her admission, "which may have contributed to her increased feelings of depression around the social stressors." ( Id. ) On the morning after her admission, Huestis was noted to present as "bright and cheerful with good affect, " denying symptoms of depression or suicidality. ( Id. ) Her electric bill had been paid; she was planning to attend her son's birthday party; and she had scheduled appointments with a psychiatric nurse practitioner and her primary care physician. (AR 562-63.)

In or around October 2010, Huestis filed applications for social security income and disability insurance benefits. In her disability application, she alleged that, starting on December 31, 2006, she has been unable to work due to "emotional and mental issues."[2] (AR 222.) Huestis later testified that her most significant impairments were not being able to be around many people and having blackout "spells" periodically. (AR 41.) She further testified that she was easily overwhelmed with the daily activities and stressors of life. (AR 43-44.) Huestis's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was held on March 20, 2012 by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Paul Martin. (AR 27-72.) Huestis appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney, who amended the alleged disability onset date to February 2, 2010 at the start of the proceeding. (AR 30.) A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. On April 27, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Huestis was not disabled under the Social Security Act from December 31, 2006 through the date of the decision. (AR 12-21.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Huestis's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-6.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Huestis filed the Complaint in this action on July 18, 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 Martin first determined that Huestis had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date of December 31, 2006.[3] (AR 14.) At step two, the ALJ found that Huestis had the severe impairments of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder. (AR 15.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Huestis's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 15-16.) Next, the ALJ determined that Huestis had the RFC to perform "a full range of work at all exertional levels, " but with the following non-exertional limitations:

[Huestis] is limited to simple, repetitive, and routine tasks, performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements and involving only simple work[-]related decisions and routine workplace changes. [She] requires being isolat[ed] from the public other than very superficial contact. She has the ability to interact with coworkers and supervisors in a routine setting on an occasional basis. She can interact with no more than 7 or 8 people with whom she is familiar at one time.

(AR 16.)

Given this RFC, and considering the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that Huestis was unable to perform her past relevant work as a bakery helper, conveyer feeder, sales clerk, route-delivery driver, counter attendant, cafeteria attendant, and fountain server. (AR 19.) Finally, and again considering the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that Huestis could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including the following representative occupations: bakery line worker, cleaner, laundry worker, and folder. (AR 20.) The ALJ concluded that ...


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