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Blake v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Vermont

May 29, 2015

Janelle Blake, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 10, 16, 19)

JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Janelle Blake 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 her application for disability insurance benefits. Pending before the Court are Blake's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 10), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 16). Also pending is Blake's motion to remand under sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for consideration of new evidence (Doc. 19), which the Commissioner opposes (Doc. 22). For the reasons stated below, Blake's motions are DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the denial of disability benefits is GRANTED.

Background

Blake was 40 years old on her alleged disability onset date of October 1, 2011. She completed high school, and has worked as a home attendant, a nursing assistant, and an inserter/stuffer. She is divorced and remarried, and has two children who are approximately 18 and 23 years old.

Blake stopped working in the fall of 2011 due to constant pain in her hips and knees, and balancing problems. (AR 32, 184.) At the January 2013 administrative hearing, Blake testified that she suffers from bilateral hip dysplasia, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, pain and numbness in the upper extremities and hands, fibromyalgia, and depression. (AR 32-33.) She stated that her worst pain is in the center of her lower spine and the back of her neck. (AR 41-42.) Blake has found that she is allergic to dyes and other artificial substances in medications, and thus takes only Tylenol and white willow bark to relieve her pain. (AR 36, 197, 203, 312, 322-23, 326.) On a typical day, Blake spends most of her time sitting in an electric reclining chair, getting up and moving around periodically to relieve her pain. (AR 39-40, 50, 191.) She states that the intensity and timing/duration of her pain is unpredictable, so it is impossible for her to plan her days in advance. (AR 190.) Generally, although she is able to do quick chores including vacuuming (AR 46, 191-92, 204), due to her pain, she is unable to use a computer other than for short periods; she rarely drives; and she has problems concentrating (AR 38, 42-44, 47-48, 190, 193, 204).

In October 2011, Blake filed an application for social security disability insurance benefits. (AR 69, 76-77.) Therein, she alleged that, starting on October 1, 2011, she has been unable to work due to bilateral hip dysplasia and constant pain. (AR 184.) Blake's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was conducted on January 29, 2013 by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Matthew Levin. (AR 27-68.) Blake appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert (VE) also testified. On February 7, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Blake was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from her alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 10-21.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Blake's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Blake filed the Complaint in this action on March 24, 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 Levin first determined that Blake had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date of October 1, 2011. (AR 12.) At step two, the ALJ found that Blake had the severe impairments of bilateral hip dysplasia and degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spines. ( Id. ) Conversely, the ALJ found that Blake's fibromyalgia, obesity, and depression were non-severe; and that her bilateral hand pain and numbness was not a medically determinable impairment. (AR 12-13.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Blake's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 15.) Next, the ALJ determined that Blake had the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that "she would need to be allowed a sit/stand option; she [could only] occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; and she must avoid all climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffold[s] and exposure to hazards." (AR 15.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Blake was unable to perform her past relevant work as a home attendant, a nurse assistant, or a stuffer. (AR 19.) Based on testimony from the VE, however, the ALJ determined that Blake could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including representative occupations such as marker, ticket taker/seller, and toll collector. (AR 21.) The ALJ concluded that Blake had not been under a disability from her alleged onset date of October 1, 2011 through the date of the decision. ( 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 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Poupore, 566 F.3d at 305. In its deliberations, the court should bear in mind that the Social Security Act is "a remedial statute to be broadly construed and liberally applied." Dousewicz v. Harris, 646 F.2d 771, 773 (2d Cir. 1981).

Analysis

Blake makes the following arguments in her motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision: (1) the ALJ erred in his analysis of Blake's ability to walk/stand, impermissibly substituting his own lay view of the medical evidence; (2) the ALJ misclassified Blake's fibromyalgia as non-severe; (3) the ALJ should not have relied on the VE's testimony regarding work existing in significant numbers in the national economy; and (4) the ALJ failed to properly develop the record regarding Blake's depression, and failed to consider the combined effects of her depression and obesity with her other impairments. (Doc. 10.) Additionally, in her motion to remand under sentence six, ...


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