United States District Court, D. Vermont
Bonnie L. O'Meara, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 9, 12)
JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Bonnie O'Meara 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 O'Meara's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 9), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 12). For the reasons stated below, the Court GRANTS O'Meara's motion, DENIES the Commissioner's motion, and REMANDS for further proceedings and a new decision.
O'Meara was 58 years old on her alleged disability onset date of September 1, 2009. In 1971, she received a college degree in social science. (AR 35, 161.) Since that date, she has worked as a secretary for several law offices and a docket clerk for the State of Vermont, until she stopped working on August 31, 2009. (AR 35-36, 125, 142-43, 221.) She was married for approximately three years when she was in her 20s but is now divorced. (AR 371.) She has no children and lives on her own. (AR 41, 366.)
O'Meara has a long-standing history of bipolar disorder with predominantly depressive symptoms. (AR 353.) She testified at the administrative hearing that she has had approximately 15 psychiatric hospitalizations, and that her depression has become worse over the years, despite medication increases. (AR 42-44.) The record demonstrates that she has received intermittent treatment for her mental problems since 1974, with multiple extended psychiatric hospitalizations. ( See, e.g., AR 228, 261, 368, 377, 395-99, 408-13, 419.) On a typical day, she fixes simple meals for herself, cares for her cat, does e-mail and other computer work, reads, completes household chores, works in her garden and yard, naps for approximately one to two hours, and watches television. (AR 37-38, 45-46, 172.) In an updated Function Report (June 2010), however, O'Meara stated that she has some days when she lacks the energy to dress or shower and has no appetite or energy to prepare food. (AR 185, 189.) She also stated that she frequently naps or does nothing; does much less housework, cooking, and outside work than she used to; and no longer reads. (AR 185, 190-91.)
In January 2010, O'Meara filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging that she has been unable to work since September 1, 2009 due to bipolar disorder and severe depression. (AR 160.) She claims that she has tried to commit suicide two or three times; she has been dismissed from "numerous jobs"; and her depression makes her tired and unable to concentrate, pay attention, or handle stress. (AR 37, 171, 173.) O'Meara's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. On September 23, 2011, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Thomas Merrill conducted a hearing on the application. (AR 31-56.) O'Meara appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel. On October 5, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that O'Meara was not disabled under the Social Security Act from January 1, 2008 through the date of the decision. (AR 18-25.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied O'Meara's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, O'Meara filed the Complaint in this action on August 27, 2013. (Doc. 1.)
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 O'Meara has engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2008, the alleged disability onset date. (AR 20.) The ALJ explained that O'Meara worked at the Family Court in Barre, Vermont for approximately seven months between February 2009 and August 31, 2009, earning $9, 136.56, "which exceeds the substantial gainful amount for those months." ( Id. ) The ALJ nonetheless continued his analysis because "there remains a period within which [O'Meara] was not earning at the SGA level." ( Id. ) At step two, the ALJ found that, although O'Meara had the medically determinable impairments of bipolar I disorder and "status post malignant melanoma without recurrence" ( id. ), she had no severe impairment or combination of impairments (AR 21). The ALJ therefore concluded that O'Meara had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 1, 2008 through the date of the decision. (AR 25.)
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 factfinder."). "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 ...