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Simmons v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

March 18, 2015




Plaintiff Stacie Simmons 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 supplemental security income ("SSI"). Pending before the court are Simmons's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 12) and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 13). For the reasons stated below, the court GRANTS Simmons's motion, DENIES the Commissioner'S motion, and REMANDS for further proceedings and a new decision.

I. Background

Stacie Simmons was thirty-one years old on October 26, 2010, the date she filed her application for SSI benefits. (AR 10.) Simmons has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; bulimia nervosa; posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"); and polysubstance dependence. (AR 382, 420, 538.) She also suffers from asthma, tennis elbow, injuries to her right shoulder and left wrist, and a hearing disorder in her right ear. (AR 78, 382.) Simmons receives periodic cortisone shots to treat her tennis elbow, and she wears a hearing aid in her right ear. (AR 87, 261.)

Simmons has an eighth grade education. (AR 76-77, 221.) As a child, she suffered physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. (AR 419, 462.) She has been married twice and was physically abused by both of her ex-husbands. (AR 419.) She has a history of mental illness, and was hospitalized twice as a teenager after attempting suicide. (AR 462.) In 2011, Simmons left her abusive relationship in Rochester, New York and moved with three of her children to a shelter in Vermont. (AR 419.) She currently lives in an apartment with her three children. (AR 77.) While she had substance abuse issues in the past, Simmons had abstained from cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol use for significant periods of time as of her hearing date. (AR 83-84.) Simmons has worked in the past as a machine operator at a materials supply company, a fast food restaurant cashier, a bindery worker, and a caregiver for her niece. (AR 79, 99-100, 237.)

During the typical week, Simmons attends therapy and a group session for anxiety. (AR 83.) She also cleans, cooks, "get[s] [her] kids to school, " and otherwise cares for her children. (AR 86, 227.) Sometimes she cannot cook, in which case her children do. (AR 229.) Simmons shops for groceries and other necessities once per month, and has someone accompany her. (AR 230.) She otherwise only goes outside to attend her appointments. ( Id. ) She does not drive, and relies on neighbors, case workers, or taxi services for transportation. (AR 70, 78.)

Simmons claims that her social phobia and anxiety render her unable to go out in public or to be around people. (AR 60.) She states that her social phobia prevents her from maintaining a job, because being around other people makes her anxious and paranoid. (AR 97.) Simmons also claims to have problems paying attention and problems dealing with authority figures. (AR 233.) She testified that her social phobia and anxiety cause her to have a panic attack ninety-nine percent of the time she leaves her residence. (AR 82.) Simmons also testified that she undergoes cycles of mania and depression, and that while she is depressed she has trouble getting out of bed, cleaning, and cooking. (AR 91.) Simmons uses Abilify and Celexa to help control her symptoms of anxiety and depression. (AR 261.)

Simmons first applied for SSI under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, in addition to disability benefits under Title II of the Act, on June 19, 2008. (AR 111.) Her application was denied, and a hearing was held on July 7, 2010, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") James Dombeck. (AR 44.) ALJ Dombeck issued an unfavorable decision on October 1, 2010. (AR 108-26.) The record does not indicate whether Simmons appealed AU Dombeck's decision. (Doc. 12 at 1 n.1.)

On October 26, 2010, Simmons applied a second time for SSI benefits, alleging a disability onset date of October 2, 2010. (AR 10.) Her application was denied, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. (AR 127-28, 139.) The hearing was conducted on December 18, 2012 by ALJ Matthew G. Levin. (AR 73.) Simmons appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. ( Id. ) A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. (AR 98-107.) The ALJ found that Simmons had not been disabled from her application date through January 11, 2013, the date of his decision.[1] (AR 7-19.) The Appeals Council denied Simmons's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1.) Simmons appealed to this court on April 24, 2014[2] (Doc. 2.)

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 her "impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do h[er] previous work[, ] but cannot, considering h[er] 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 she is not, step two requires the ALJ to detennine whether she has a "severe impairment." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Ifthe 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). Ifso, the claimant is presumptively disabled. Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984.)

If the claimant is not presumptively disabled, the AU must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which is the most the claimant can do in a work setting despite her 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)(l). At step four, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's RFC precludes the performance of her 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 Simmons had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since her application date of October 26, 2010. (AR 12.) At step two, the ALJ found that Simmons had the following severe impairments: "bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and asthma." ( Id. ) At step three, the ALJ found that Simmons did not have an impairment or ...

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