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Alexander v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

December 29, 2014




Plaintiff Alan Alexander 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 supplemental security income ("SSI"). Pending before the court are Alexander'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 GRANTS Alexander's motion, DENIES the Commissioner's motion, and REMANDS for further proceedings and a new decision.

I. Background

Alan Alexander was forty-seven years old on his alleged disability onset date of August 29, 2011. Alexander was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a child. (AR 351.) He never completed high school, but he obtained a GED in 1982. (AR 44, 46, 296, 366.) Since age 17, Alexander has spent approximately twenty years of his life in jails and prisons for various drug-related offenses and burglaries. (AR 44, 297, 366, 678.) He currently lives in an apartment with his girlfriend. (AR 273, 307.) Alexander has been married and divorced, and has no children. (AR 366.) Although he has worked in the past as a carpenter, painter, and at various prison jobs, he has no past relevant work experience for purposes of his disability determination because he held his last substantial gainful employment in 1987. (AR 30, 281, 367.) See 20 C.F.R. § 416.965(a) ("We consider that your work experience applies when it was done in the last 15 years, lasted long enough for you to learn to do it, and was substantial gainful activity.").

Alexander has various cognitive and physical conditions. In addition to ADHD, he suffers from anxiety and depression. (AR 1189.) He has also been diagnosed with cannabis and alcohol dependence. (AR 371.) While he reports that he last used alcohol in 2006, Alexander uses cannabis daily. (AR 372.) He also smokes a pack of cigarettes per day. ( Id .) He regularly takes Ritalin and Seroquel to treat his cognitive disorders, and he underwent outpatient substance use treatment from February 2004 through February 2005. (AR 783-800, 1190.)

In addition to his cognitive disorders, Alexander has been diagnosed with osteoarthritis and rotator cuff disorder. (AR 1189.) A longstanding history of right shoulder pain led to an arthroscopic subacromial decompression and distal clavicle resection procedure in 2011. (AR 399.) He also underwent a partial medial meniscectomy in 2011 after a MRI revealed a medial meniscus tear in his left knee. (AR 411.) He regularly takes aspirin and ibuprofen to help alleviate his pain. (AR 1189.)

In January 2013 Alexander slipped and fell, injuring his right elbow. (AR 958.) A March 2013 MRI revealed a non-displaced fracture and a tear of the radial collateral ligament. (AR 952, 968.) Alexander wore a removable elbow splint to treat his injury. (AR 970-71.) He was prescribed oxycodone and Vicodin to treat his pain symptoms. (AR 968, 971.)

On the typical day, Alexander goes for short walks, stretches, cleans his apartment, cares for his cats, sits, reads, and does puzzles. (AR 308.) His girlfriend also helps care for the cats and their apartment. ( Id .) He alleged difficulties in personal care activities such as dressing, bathing, and using the toilet. ( Id .) He states that he does not prepare his own meals because he cannot lift pots and pans without dropping them. (AR 309.) He performs some house and yard work, but stated that he finds physical labor painful and depressing. (AR 310.) He does not drive, and goes shopping once or twice per month with his girlfriend. ( Id .)

On August 29, 2011 Alexander applied for Social Security disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act as well as SSI under Title XVI of the act, alleging a disability onset date of December 31, 1994. (AR 20.) He later amended his alleged onset date to the date he filed his application. (AR 42.) Because he was not eligible as an insured for disability benefits on his amended onset date, he currently only seeks SSI under Title XVI of the Social Security Act.

Alexander stated that his illnesses caused him concentration problems as well as the inability to lift weight with his right arm, due to his shoulder and elbow injuries, and to stand for long periods of time, due to his left knee injury. (AR 307.) He also stated that he got "seriously depressed and listless" and that he could not handle large crowds or high-pressure situations. ( Id .) Alexander's August 29, 2011 application for SSI benefits was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he timely requested an administrative hearing. (AR 129, 143, 160.) The hearing was conducted on May 20, 2013 by Administrative Law Judge ("ALF) Thomas Merrill. (AR 41.) Alexander appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. ( Id .) Alexander testified that he experiences debilitating pain as a result of his shoulder, knee, and elbow conditions. He testified that his shoulder "still pops and grinds a little bit, " and that combined with his right elbow injury, he can lift very little with his right arm. (AR 57-58.) He further testified that he has trouble gripping with his hand, and that he was told that he "probably will never have full use" of his right arm again. (AR 58.) He also testified that after his knee surgery he still walks with a limp, that his knee bothers him daily, and that he may need a left knee replacement. (AR 59.) A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. (AR 66-71.)

The ALJ found that Alexander had not been disabled from his alleged onset date through July 9, 2013, the date of his decision. (AR 32.) The Appeals Council denied Alexander's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 5.) Alexander appealed to this court on February 19, 2014. (Doc. 1.)

II. The ALJ's Decision

"Disability" under the Social Security Act is 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 claimant 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 evaluating disability claims the Commissioner uses a five-step procedure. See Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 383 (2d Cir. 2004). At step one the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is presently engaging in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If he is not, step two requires the ALJ to determine whether he 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, at step three he determines whether the severe 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). If so, the claimant is presumptively disabled. Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984.)

If the claimant is not presumptively disabled, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which is the most the claimant can do in a work setting despite his limitations based on the relevant evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(a)(1), 416.920(e), 416.945(a)(1). At step four, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's RFC precludes the performance of his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). At the fifth and final 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 proof in the first four steps; 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).

Employing the five-step procedure, the ALJ first determined that Alexander had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date of August 29, 2011. (AR 22.) At step two, the ALJ found that Alexander had the following severe impairments: "osteoarthritis of the right upper extremity; depression; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); and substance addiction disorder." ( Id .) At step three, the All found that Alexander did not have an ...

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