United States District Court, D. Vermont
OPINION AND ORDER
(Docs. 12, 13)
JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff John Pawloski 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 denying his application for disability insurance benefits. Pending before the Court are Pawloski'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, Pawloski's motion is DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.
Pawloski was 40 years old on his alleged disability onset date of October 10, 2009. He has a high-school education and job experience as a factory worker and a flagger/traffic controller. He was married for nine years, divorcing when he was around 33 years old. (AR 35, 585-86.) He has two sons from the marriage and a third son, who he seldom sees, from a short-term relationship after he divorced. (Id. ) At different times during the alleged disability period, Pawloski lived with his mother, in a camper, and at a homeless shelter. (AR 470, 659, 698, 719.)
Pawloski is morbidly obese, weighing approximately 380-390 pounds as of September 2012 (AR 45), and has diabetes mellitus with neuropathy in his feet. He also suffers from degenerative joint disease in the hips and knees, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), asthma, hypertension, gastroesophageal reflux disease, obstructive sleep apnea, and depression. Pawloski testified at the administrative hearing that he is unable to work because he cannot stand or walk for long periods and his hands cannot do the type of work he has done in the past for long periods. (AR 39.) He stated that he was unable to continue doing his jobs as a factory worker and a flagger because he had problems with frequent urination; his hands would go numb; he could not stand or kneel for long periods; and he had constant pain in his feet and ankles (neuropathy). (AR 40-43.) On a typical day during the relevant period, Pawloski sat around his house; did chores including washing the dishes, cooking meals, and going grocery shopping; watched television; and played games on the computer. (AR 46, 50.)
On December 7, 2010, Pawloski filed applications for social security income and disability insurance benefits. In his disability application, he alleged that, starting on October 30, 2008, he has been unable to work due to the following conditions: "[a]rtificial hip, high blood pressure, asthma, [CTS], over weight [sic], bad rotator cu[ff]s in shoulders, tendinitis, [and] back problems." (AR 233.) He further stated that he is "unable to stand all day" because of his hip and back problems, and "[h]olding a sign hurts [his] shoulder." (Id. ) Pawloski's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was conducted on September 6, 2012 by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Dory Sutker. (AR 26-73.) Pawloski appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. On October 26, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Pawloski was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from October 10, 2009 through the date of the decision. (AR 11-20.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Pawloski's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Pawloski filed the Complaint in this action on June 18, 2014. (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, ALJ Sutker first determined that Pawloski had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date. (AR 13.) At step two, the ALJ found that Pawloski had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus with early onset neuropathy, obesity, CTS, degenerative joint disease status post hip replacement, and bilateral knee pain. (AR 13.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Pawloski's asthma, hypertension, gastroesophageal reflux disease, obstructive sleep apnea, and depression were "nonsevere" impairments, given that they did not result in more than a minimal impact on his ability to perform basic work functions. (AR 14.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Pawloski's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 14-15.) Next, the ALJ determined that Pawloski had the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except as follows:
[Pawloski] can stand and walk a total of four hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. He must avoid climbing ladders, ropes[, ] and scaffolds. He has no limitations in his ability to climb ramps or stairs. [Pawloski] can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch[, ] and crawl. Additionally, [he] is limited to frequent handling.
(AR 15.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Pawloski was unable to perform his past relevant work. (AR 18-19.) Based on testimony from the VE, however, the ALJ determined that Pawloski could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including laundry sorter, price marker, information clerk, surveillance system monitor, and inspection table worker. (AR 19.) The ALJ concluded that Pawloski had not been under a disability from his alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 20.)
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, ...