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Harris v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Vermont

January 22, 2015

Joanne P. Harris, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Joanne Harris 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 her application for disability insurance benefits. Pending before the Court are Harris's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 9), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 11). For the reasons stated below, Harris's motion is DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.


Harris was 47 years old on her alleged disability onset date of November 26, 2010. She has an associate's degree, and has worked in various administrative office jobs in both the United States and Canada. As of August 2014, she was living in Canada. (Doc. 9 at 2.) According to Harris, her eligibility for social security disability benefits depends on the United States' "totalization agreement" with Canada, which allows her to aggregate work credits based on her work in both the United States and Canada for purposes of benefits qualification.[1] ( Id. at 2, 12-13 (citing U.S.-Canadian Social Security Agreement, available at (last visited 1/8/15); 42 U.S.C. § 433).)

Harris suffers from fibromyalgia, patellofemoral syndrome (pain in the front of the knee), Ehlers-Danlos syndrome ("EDS") (an inherited connective tissue disorder), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), chronic sinusitis and bronchitis, and diabetes. These conditions have caused her joint pain, neck and back pain, knee pain, chronic fatigue, and coughing/choking spells. She requires multiple medications including several inhalers for her respiratory condition, walks with a cane, and takes two or three naps each day. Harris testified at the January 2013 administrative hearing that, on a typical day, she does not do much other than lie down, eat meals, take her medications, and use her phone and the internet. (AR 43-44.) She further testified that doing anything is extremely tiring and painful for her; she is coughing all the time; she does not go out much; and when she does go out, someone (often her son) has to accompany her. (AR 44, 46.) In a March 2011 Function Report, Harris reported that, despite her impairments, she was able to care for her school-age son, feed her dog, cook meals, shop with assistance, perform household chores with assistance, bake, pay bills, and socialize on the telephone and computer. (AR 158-60, 165-69.)

In November 2010, Harris protectively filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging that she stopped working on August 5, 2005[2] due to fibromyalgia, patellofemoral syndrome, EDS, COPD, chronic sinusitis and bronchitis, and diabetes. (AR 148.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Harris timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was conducted on January 4, 2013 by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Thomas Merrill. (AR 34-55.) Harris appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. On February 21, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Harris was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from her amended alleged onset date of November 26, 2010 through December 31, 2010, her date last insured. (AR 13-22.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Harris's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-4.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Harris filed the Complaint in this action on April 3, 2014. (Doc. 3.)

ALJ Decision

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 Merrill first determined that Harris last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2010. (AR 15.) Regarding Harris's work history in Canada, the ALJ explained that, although he had been unable to obtain earnings records confirming quarters of coverage while Harris worked in Canada, he would proceed in the disability analysis "on the assumption that [Harris] had the requisite quarters based upon Canadian earnings." (AR 16.) Next, the ALJ found that Harris had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of November 26, 2010 through her date last insured of December 31, 2010. ( Id. ) At step two, the ALJ found that Harris had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and cervical spine, and fibromyalgia. ( Id. ) Conversely, the ALJ found that Harris's other alleged impairments-patellofemoral syndrome, EDS, COPD, asthma, chronic sinusitis and bronchitis, and diabetes-were non-severe, given that they did not cause significant limitations in Harris's ability to perform one or more basic work activities during the relevant period. ( Id. ) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Harris's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 18.)

Next, the ALJ determined that Harris had the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that she could stand and/or walk for no more than four hours each workday; she could only occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and she should avoid even moderate exposure to airborne irritants, particularly pesticides. ( Id. ) Given this RFC, and considering the VE's testimony at the administrative hearing, the ALJ found that Harris was capable of performing her past relevant work as an assistant buyer and a customer service administrator. (AR 21.) The ALJ concluded that Harris had not been under a disability from November 26, 2010, the alleged disability onset date, through December 31, 2010, the date last insured. ( Id. )

Standard of Review

The Social Security Act defines the term "disability" as 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 person 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 considering a Commissioner's disability decision, the court "review[s] the administrative record de novo to determine whether there is substantial evidence supporting the... decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard." Machadio v. Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir. 2002) (citing Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000)); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The court's factual review of the Commissioner's decision is thus limited to determining whether "substantial evidence" exists in the record to support such decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rivera v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 964, 967 (2d Cir. 1991); see Alston v. Sullivan, 904 F.2d 122, 126 (2d Cir. 1990) ("Where there is substantial evidence to support either position, the determination is one to be made by the factfinder."). "Substantial evidence" is more than a mere scintilla; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 ...

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