United States District Court, D. Vermont
Caleb Souliere, on behalf of Aime R. Souliere, deceased, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 11, 14)
JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Caleb Souliere, Administrator of the Estate of Aime R. Souliere ("Souliere"), deceased, 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, in part, Souliere's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The Commissioner determined that Souliere was disabled as of December 19, 2010, but not before that date. Souliere died on October 10, 2013, while this matter was pending. (Doc. 23-1.) On November 20, 2014, Souliere's son Caleb filed a motion requesting that he be substituted as Plaintiff, given that he is the only surviving son of Souliere and the administrator of Souliere's estate. (Docs. 23, 23-2.) The motion was granted, and Caleb was substituted as Plaintiff in this action on November 24, 2014. (Doc. 24.)
Pending before the Court are Souliere's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 11), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 14). For the reasons stated below, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's motion, DENIES the Commissioner's motion, and REMANDS for further proceedings and a new decision.
Souliere was 52 years old on his alleged disability onset date of June 17, 2008. He had a limited education, completing only 11 years of schooling. His past work included jobs as a meat cutter/butcher, a cook, a salesman, a painter, and a shipping and receiving worker. During most of the alleged disability period, he was homeless, sleeping on friends' couches. (AR 60-61.)
In June 2005, Souliere was admitted to the hospital and found to have rapid atrial fibrillation. (AR 434.) In the same month, he was also found to have congestive heart failure. (AR 426.) Thereafter, Souliere treated with internist Dr. Christopher Rickman for both his atrial fibrillation and congestive heart failure, among other things. ( See, e.g., AR 408.) In February 2009, Dr. Rickman stated that a Holter Monitor Report indicated Souliere had "[c]hronic atrial fibrillation with occasional ventricular ectopy." (AR 573.) Souliere also had an alcohol problem, and in March 2009, cardiologist Dr. Andrew Torkelson stated that Souliere's cardiomyopathy was "related to probably alcohol and A-fib." (AR 567.) Dr. Torkelson stated that Souliere was at risk of ischemic heart disease, given his family history, and advised Souliere to avoid alcohol and tobacco. (AR 568.) Approximately one year later, in March 2010, Dr. Torkelson noted that Souliere was under a lot of stress related to having his license revoked due to two DUI convictions, living on unemployment benefits and food stamps, and gaining weight "dramatically." (AR 688.) Dr. Torkelson recommended that Souliere focus on weight loss and low-level exercise, as well as smoking cessation. (AR 689.)
At his administrative hearings in November 2010 and November 2011, respectively, Souliere testified that his ability to function was limited because he had minimal strength and became winded easily when bending over, taking walks, and carrying groceries, requiring him to sit down frequently to rest. (AR 34, 45, 63.) On a typical day in November 2010, Souliere went for a 1.5- to 2.5-hour walk, watched television, swept the floor (despite getting winded), and visited neighbors. (AR 35.) By November 2011, Souliere could walk for only about 25% of the time he could walk one year earlier, and he had to go at a much slower pace and take more frequent breaks to catch his breath. (AR 63, 66-67.)
In February 2009, Souliere protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI. Therein, he alleged that, since June 24, 2005,  he was unable to work because of his atrial fibrillation. He stated: "I can't work like I used to. I get short[-]winded and I have to go slower." (AR 319.) More recently, he stated that he felt weak and fatigued, was losing weight, and had little appetite. (AR 365, 368, 382.) His applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he timely requested an administrative hearing. On November 15, 2010, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Thomas Merrill conducted the first hearing on Souliere's applications. (AR 30-54.) Souliere appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel. On December 2, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Souliere was not disabled under the Social Security Act from his alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 90-108.) Approximately three months later, the Decision Review Board ("DRB") remanded the case back to the ALJ for resolution of several issues. (AR 109-13.) Accordingly, on November 14, 2011, the ALJ held a second hearing at which Souliere, represented by counsel, again appeared and testified. (AR 55-83.) A vocational expert and a medical advisor also testified at the hearing. ( Id. ) On December 9, 2011, the ALJ issued a new decision finding that Souliere was disabled beginning on December 19, 2010, but not earlier. (AR 9-28.) Soon thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Souliere's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-6, 401.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Souliere filed the Complaint in this action on September 3, 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, in his most recent December 2011 decision, ALJ Merrill first determined that Souliere had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date. (AR 15.) At step two, the ALJ found that Souliere had the severe impairments of cardiomyopathy with atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure, and obesity. ( Id. ) Conversely, the ALJ found that Souliere's hypertension, hyperlipidemia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, osteoarthritis, and major depressive disorder, were nonsevere. (AR 16.) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Souliere's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. ( Id. )
Next, the ALJ determined that Souliere had the RFC to perform "light work, " as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that he must "avoid exposure to hazards that would expose him to lacerations or blunt force trauma." (AR 16.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Souliere was unable to perform his past relevant work as a meat cutter, a cook, and a shipping and receiving worker. (AR 20.) Based on vocational expert testimony, however, the ALJ determined that, prior to December 19, 2010, the date Souliere's age category changed, there were other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Souliere could perform, including the jobs of mail sorter, order caller, and assembler. (AR 21-22.) The ...