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Pelland v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

December 2, 2014




Plaintiff Michael Pelland seeks reversal and remand of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of his application for disability insurance benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Before the court are Pelland's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 9) and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the decision. (Doc. 13.)

I. Background

Pelland is a thirty-seven-year-old male. On December 1, 2001, his alleged disability onset date, he injured his back lifting a washing machine while working at Rentway, a furniture company. He was subsequently diagnosed with a herniated disc at L5-S1. (AR 306.) He declined surgery for the back injury. (AR 405.)

Pelland suffers from back pain due to his injury. He has multiple fractures in his right hand due to punching objects. (AR 874.) He also suffers from depression and anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and hypertension. (AR 219.) He has been diagnosed with specific learning disorders in reading comprehension and math reasoning. (AR 863.) In high school, Pelland was placed on an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for learning difficulties in English. ( Id. ) He graduated from high school in 1996. (AR 858.)

Pelland joined the Marine Corps and made it through boot camp and infantry school, but was discharged in 1998 after he developed a testicular hernia. (AR 28, 220.) After leaving the military, he worked as a security guard for less than a year, then went to work for Rentway. (AR 220.) He has not worked since he injured his back in December 2001. (AR 750.)

Pelland is single and lives alone in subsidized housing. (AR 205.) He has two minor sons from prior relationships. (AR 197, 1056.) He rarely sees his older son, but has two days a month of visitation with his younger son, a toddler. (AR 1068.) He reports that he spends most days sleeping, watching TV or playing video games. (AR 30.)

II. Procedural History

Pelland filed his current application for disability benefits on December 29, 2006. (AR 196.) Federal review officials denied his claim in April 2007 and again in April 2008. (AR 81, 110). Following a hearing, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Thomas Merrill issued an April 10, 2010 decision in which he found that Pelland was not disabled at step four of the sequential evaluation process. (AR 17.) After the Decision Review Board declined to disturb the ALJ's decision, Pelland appealed to this court. (AR 1, 760A-B.) On March 31, 2011, the parties stipulated that the case would be voluntarily remanded for a further administrative proceeding. (AR 760B.)

On April 20, 2012, the Appeals Council found that the ALJ had failed to address opinions of certain treating physicians that suggested Pelland had greater limitations than the ALJ determined. Accordingly, it vacated the April 2010 decision and remanded the case for a new hearing. (AR 765.) On January 25, 2013, the ALJ again determined that Pelland was not disabled. (AR 745-60.) The Appeals Council declined to take jurisdiction of Pelland's appeal, finding that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. (AR 739-42.) Pelland appealed to this court on February 11, 2014. (Doc. 1.)

III. The ALJ's January 2013 Decision

The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential process to decide whether an individual is disabled. See Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 380-81 (2d Cir. 2004). At the first step, the ALJ determines if the individual is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i); 416.920(a)(4)(i). If not, the ALJ then considers whether the individual has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that has lasted or is expected to last continuously for at least twelve months. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); 416.909; 416.920(a)(4)(ii). At the third step, the ALJ considers whether the individual has an impairment that "meets or equals" an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); 416.920(a)(4)(iii). An individual is presumed to be disabled if he or she has a listed impairment. Id. ; Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984).

If the individual is not presumptively disabled, the ALJ then considers the individual's residual functional capacity (RFC), which means the most work the claimant can still do despite his or her impairments based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the record. At this step, the ALJ also considers whether the individual can still perform his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv); 404.1545(a); 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Finally, at step five, the ALJ considers whether the individual can perform "any other work." Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), (g); 416.920(a)(4)(v), (g). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Butts, 388 F.3d at 380-81. At step five, there is "a limited burden shift to the Commissioner, " requiring her to show only "that there is work in the national economy that the claimant can do." Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009).

Applying this framework, the ALJ found that Pelland had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of December 1, 2001. The ALJ next determined that Pelland had severe medically determinable impairments of "non-stenotic degenerative changes at L5, a depressive disorder, and ADHD." (AR 751.) The ALJ noted that Pelland had broken his hand multiple times while punching things, but found that any impairment was temporary and that he did not appear to have ongoing limitations related to these injuries. The ALJ also stated that Pelland's diagnosis of learning disorders was not medically determined. ( Id. )

At step three, the ALJ found that Pelland did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. ( Id. )

At step four, the ALJ determined that Pelland had an RFC to perform light work, except that he was limited to tasks involving no more than three to four steps. He found that Pelland could sustain concentration, persistence and pace eight hours per day for forty hours a week, could collaborate with coworkers and supervisors, and could maintain a schedule, recognize work hazards, and manage routine changes. (AR 752.)

At the fifth and final step of his analysis, the ALJ determined that Pelland was capable of performing his previous work as a security guard. However, because Pelland failed to provide information about that position, the ALJ could not determine whether it constituted "past relevant work" as defined by the regulations. Accordingly, the ALJ went on to determine that there were other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Pelland could perform, such as "marker, " "bakery/line worker, " and "ticket seller." (AR 759.) The ALJ concluded that Pelland was not disabled from the alleged onset date until January 25, 2013, the date of the ALJ's decision. (AR 760.)

IV. Standard of Review

This court reviews the administrative record de novo to detell line whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by "substantial evidence" and uses the correct legal standard. Machadio v. Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir. 2002); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Poupore, 566 F.3d at 305 (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Where there is substantial evidence to support either position, the determination is one to be made by the factfinder. Alston v. Sullivan, 904 F.2d 122, 126 (2d Cir. 1990). In ...

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