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Thompson v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

March 30, 2015


OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 11, 14)


Plaintiff Geoffrey Thompson 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 disability benefits. Pending before the court are Thompson'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 Thompson's motion, DENIES the Commissioner's motion, and REMANDS for further proceedings and a new decision.

I. Background

Geoffrey Thompson was sixty-two years old on his alleged disability onset date of June 15, 2009. On that date he suffered what was diagnosed as a lesion in his left cerebellar peduncle, or stroke. (AR 42, 339.)

Thompson left high school in the eleventh grade to join the Navy. (AR 575.) He obtained his GED during his time in the Navy. (AR 41.) After serving for two years in the reserves, Thompson attended technical school and became an X-ray technician. (AR 41, 575.) He worked as an X-ray technician from around 1972 until the mid-1990s. (AR 575.) He was self-employed as a construction worker, doing painting and carpentry, from 1995 until 2010. (AR 41, 250.) Thompson stated that he ceased working after his stroke. (AR 42.)

In January 2008, Thompson was hospitalized for diverticulitis, a condition affecting the colon, which resolved with treatment. (AR 386.) He has been diagnosed with hypertension, periodic limb movement, tinnitus, and Dupuytren's syndrome, which caused lumps and weakness in his right hand. (AR 382, 388, 395.) Thompson has also been diagnosed with sleep apnea, although a split night polysomnography study found no evidence of obstructive sleep apnea or sleep disordered breathing. (AR 382, 596.)

Thompson is obese. His weight ranges between 300 and 313 pounds. (AR 243, 300.) He was a tobacco user until he quit in 2007. (AR 310, 318.) He was a heavy drinker until his stroke, after which he reduced his alcohol consumption. (AR 310, 575.) Thompson takes medications for iron deficiency, depression, digestive problems, and high blood pressure. (AR 14, 256.) He also uses a cane. (AR 47.)

Thompson lives in a house with his girlfriend. (AR 234.) On a typical day, he makes himself breakfast and lunch, watches television, cares for his cats, stores wood, reads, takes a nap, and helps his girlfriend make dinner. (Id.) He also shops for groceries and does laundry weekly, cleans monthly, and mows his lawn when needed, but indicated that he needs help and encouragement to complete those tasks. (AR 236.) Thompson's hobby is woodworking, and he makes Adirondack chairs. (AR 44.)

On December 14, 2009, Thompson filed an application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, with an alleged onset date of June 15, 2009. (AR 10.) Thompson's date last insured was September 30, 2010, after which he was no longer eligible for disability benefits under Title II. (Id.) He claimed that he suffered dizziness, fatigue, numbness in his right hand, forgetfulness, and a constant hissing in his right ear. (AR 243, 254.) Thompson's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he timely requested an administrative hearing. (AR 83, 99, 102.)

The hearing was conducted on June 19, 2012 by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Thomas Merrill (AR 37.) Thompson appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. (Id.) Thompson testified that he had trouble walking, and sometimes lost his balance because of dizziness. (AR 42.) He stated that he didn't sleep well and was very tired. (AR 42-43.) He also stated that his right eye went in and out of focus. (AR 46.) He further testified that weakness in his right leg affected his gait, but that it had improved. (AR 47.) He also stated that he was distracted by ringing in his right ear, and that he had numbness and pain in his right hand and had recently been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. (AR 48-49.) He testified that he was forgetful and had short-term memory problems. (AR 49.) He identified his most significant problems to be lightheadedness, difficulty balancing, dizziness, and fear of falling. (AR 50.) Thompson's girlfriend, Sue Kremelberg, also testified at the hearing, as did a medical expert and a vocational expert ("VE"). (AR 19, 23, 39.)

The ALJ found that Thompson had not been disabled from his alleged onset date of June 15, 2009, through his date last insured, September 30, 2010. (AR 17.) The Appeals Council denied Thompson's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1.) Thompson appealed to this court on December 30, 2013. (Doc. 3.)

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 ...

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