United States District Court, D. Vermont
OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 11, 16)
JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Travis Aldrich 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 Aldrich's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 11), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 16). For the reasons stated below, Aldrich's motion (Doc. 11) is DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion (Doc. 16) is GRANTED.
Aldrich was 32 years old on his alleged disability onset date of May 20, 2008. He attended school through the eleventh grade and thereafter obtained a GED. He last worked in the spring of 2009 as a bottle clerk and soda manager at a store. He has also worked as a cashier, a custodian, a delivery assistant, and a flagger (directing traffic).
Aldrich had a traumatic childhood, and claims his father murdered his mother when he was two years old. (AR 41, 275, 299.) After his mother's death, his paternal grandparents took custody of him, and he alleges they were physically and emotionally abusive. (AR 41, 275, 300.) Aldrich describes himself as an angry child who regularly got into fights. (AR 275.) He spent time in juvenile detention and lived with a foster family during his teenage years. (AR 276, 300.) He has past legal charges for domestic assault, simple assault, and assaulting a police officer. (AR 300.) In 2011, Aldrich and his fiance had a son. They were living together in a home along with Aldrich's fiance's sister and his fiance's three children who ranged in age from 7 to 11. (AR 34, 42, 305, 326.) On a typical day during the alleged disability period, Aldrich cared for the four children while his fiance was at work, getting them up and out of bed in the morning, walking the older children to school, playing with his young son when he was not at daycare, and preparing meals. (AR 42-43, 228-29, 419.) In addition, Aldrich did household chores including the dishes and laundry, cared for his pets (three dogs and multiple cats), played computer games, watched television, rested on the couch, and shopped for groceries once a month. (AR 42-43, 46, 228-32.) He was unable to drive because his license had been suspended due to unpaid traffic tickets. (AR 34.)
Aldrich has a history of chronic back and shoulder pain. (AR 304, 419.) When he was 17 years old, Harrington rods were inserted in his back for treatment of congenital scoliosis,  and he was diagnosed with congenital kyphoscoliosis with reported chronic back pain. (AR 305-06, 419.) Aldrich also struggles with mental health problems including posttraumatic stress syndrome ("PTSD") and depression. He has low trust of others, low self-esteem, and anxiety which manifests in frequent anger outbursts. (AR 299-300.) He testified that he is "very scared" in crowds and does not like to go out in public. (AR 41-42.)
In September 2010, Aldrich protectively filed applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits. In the latter application, he alleged that, starting on May 20, 2008, he has been unable to work due to a history of back problems, acid reflux, emotional problems, and restrictive airways. (AR 211.) At the administrative hearing, Aldrich testified that he is in constant discomfort due to his back problems; he is unable to bend over; and he has to take breaks on walks. (AR 37, 47, 49.) Aldrich's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was conducted on June 12, 2012 by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Paul Martin. (AR 29-59.) Aldrich appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. On July 18, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Aldrich was not disabled from the alleged onset date of May 20, 2008 through the date of the decision. (AR 11-23.) The Appeals Council denied Aldrich's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Aldrich filed the Complaint in this action on September 16, 2013. (Doc. 3.)
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 Aldrich had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date of May 20, 2008. (AR 13.) At step two, the ALJ found that Aldrich had the following severe impairments: scoliosis (status post rod insertion), asthma, PTSD, anti-social personality, and depression. ( Id. ) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Aldrich's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 14-16.) Next, the ALJ determined that Aldrich had the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except as follows:
[Aldrich] is unable to stand or walk [for] more than 30 minutes at a time, with a break of a few minutes and/or change of position. He is able to occasionally twist, stoop, climb stairs, and balance, but he is unable to climb ladders, ropes[, ] and scaffolds[, ] or crouch. He must avoid concentrated exposure to environmental irritants, such as fumes, dusts[, ] and gases. He must avoid interactions with groups of more than 4-5 people, and may have occasional contact on a routine basis with coworkers, supervisors[, ] and the general public. He is able to perform 1-3[-]step tasks or routine tasks performed on a regular basis.
(AR 16.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Aldrich was unable to perform his past relevant work as a bottler (recycler), cashier/bagger, flagger, custodian, inventory clerk, or receiving shipping clerk. (AR 21.) Finally, based on testimony from the VE, the ALJ determined that Aldrich could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including parking lot attendant, basket filler, and bottle label inspector. (AR 22.) The ALJ concluded that ...