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Vilbrin v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

December 29, 2014

ANNE VILBRIN, Plaintiff,



Plaintiff Anne Vilbrin seeks reversal and remand of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of her application for disability insurance benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Before the court are Vilbrin's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 5) and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the decision (Doc. 11).

I. Background

Vilbrin was born in 1967 and was thirty-seven years old on her alleged disability onset date of November 1, 2004. She completed her GED in 1988. (AR 159.) She has previous work experience as a dishwasher, shipping and receiving clerk, and housekeeper. (AR 153.) She was frequently absent from her last job as a housekeeper. At the time, her father was dying of leukemia. (AR 166, 269.)

Vilbrin was raised mainly by her grandmother, who died when she was a teenager. (AR 270.) She was sexually abused by her older brother when she was between the ages of four and fifteen. ( Id. )

Vilbrin is single. At the time she applied for disability benefits, Vilbrin lived with her mother, but she apparently now lives in her own apartment. (AR 189, 1345.) She provides some care for her mother, who has Alzheimer's. (AR 189, 1016.) Vilbrin was previously in a civil union that dissolved. (AR 274.) Her former partner had a son from a prior relationship whom Vilbrin remains in contact with and considers to be her stepson. ( Id., AR 742.)

Vilbrin has a significant history of substance abuse. She began abusing alcohol when she was a teenager and reports that from the time she was fourteen until she turned twenty-eight she drank eight to fifteen drinks a day. (AR 328.) She stopped drinking prior to 2004. (AR 268.) She also has a history of drug abuse including oxycontin, cocaine, and other opiates. (AR 274.) Her primary care physician stopped prescribing narcotics to her in 2008 after she was suspected of selling her medications. (AR 757.) She attended the inpatient substance abuse treatment program at Valley Vista twice in 2007, and participated in intensive outpatient programs in 2007 and 2008. (AR 563, 612, 686, 692.) She regularly uses marijuana and is a heavy tobacco smoker. (AR 328, 563.)

Since 2004, Vilbrin has suffered from chronic abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. (AR 152, 182.) Her primary care physician diagnosed her with chronic pancreatitis, although this diagnosis remains uncertain. (AR 389, 488, 1290.) She also suffers from anxiety and depression. (AR 1377.) More recently, she has developed osteoarthritis in her left knee. (AR 1001.) She has been taking methadone since at least 2008 for her pain. (AR 790.) On her disability application, she alleged that she has irritable bowel syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder as well. (AR 49.)

II. Procedural History

Vilbrin applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on April 17, 2008. (AR 46.) Her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. (AR 46-52.) Following a hearing, ALJ Thomas Merrill ruled on May 19, 2010 that Vilbrin was not disabled. (AR 19.) Vilbrin appealed to this court and the Commissioner stipulated to a remand for further proceedings. (AR 1118.) On remand, the ALJ was directed to obtain medical expert testimony regarding the severity of Vilbrin's impairments, further consider the severity of her mental impairments and pancreatitis, further consider treating and examining source opinion evidence, reconsider her RFC, obtain additional VE testimony, and determine whether substance abuse was a contributing factor to any finding of disability. ( Id. )

The ALJ conducted another hearing on September 20, 2013. (AR 1065.) The ALJ heard testimony from two consulting physicians and a vocational expert. On December 4, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision stating that Vilbrin was not disabled. (AR 1024.) This appeal followed.

III. The ALJ's 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 ...

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