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Warner-Hall v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Vermont

June 23, 2015

Tracy Lee Warner-Hall, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Tracy Warner-Hall 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 Warner-Hall's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 5), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 12). For the reasons stated below, Warner-Hall's motion is DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.


Warner-Hall was 45 years old on her alleged disability onset date of March 16, 2011. She has completed high school and worked as a waitress/manager at her family's restaurant from approximately 1984 until March 2011. In 2010, she married her third husband, with whom she currently lives. She has two adult children.

Warner-Hall suffers from chronic pain, primarily due to osteoarthritis in the knees, hips, and cervical spine. In the years 2010 through 2012, she underwent left hip replacement surgery and bilateral knee replacement surgeries. She also suffers from depression and high blood pressure. Warner-Hall testified that, on a typical day, she prepares simple meals, completes basic household chores including washing dishes and doing laundry, cares for her dogs, babysits her nephew including sometimes picking him up from school, uses a tanning bed in her home, and uses the computer (Facebook). She also occasionally shops for groceries, gardens, and attends family functions. She traveled to Ireland and California during the alleged disability period, but was limited in what she could see and do because of pain. (AR 41-43.) On these trips, she arranged for a wheelchair to meet her at the airport and used a cane to help with walking. ( Id. ) Warner-Hall testified that she becomes uncomfortable if she maintains any position for an extended period: she can sit for only 5-10 minutes at a time, stand for only 10-15 minutes at a time, and walk for only approximately 15-20 steps. (AR 42-43, 45.) She uses one or two crutches to assist with walking, and lies in bed with pillows and a heating pad approximately six times each day. (AR 43-45.) She takes Percocet for pain and trazodone for depression. (AR 39-40.) She testified that she cries a lot, sometimes does not want to get out of bed, and does not enjoy life anymore. (AR 39.)

In February 2011, Warner-Hall protectively filed an application for social security disability insurance benefits, alleging that, starting on March 16, 2011, she has been unable to work due to osteoarthritis of the knees, hips, back, and neck; depression; and anxiety. Warner-Hill's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was held on November 13, 2012, by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Matthew Levin. (AR 34-50.) Warner-Hill appeared and testified, and was represented by a non-attorney representative. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. On December 7, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Warner-Hall was not disabled under the Social Security Act from her alleged onset date of March 16, 2011 through the date of the decision. (AR 19-29.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Warner-Hall's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 3-8.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Warner-Hall filed the Complaint in this action on April 29, 2014. (Doc. 1.)

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 Warner-Hall had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of March 16, 2011. (AR 21.) At step two, the ALJ found that Warner-Hall had the severe impairment of osteoarthritis of the knees, hips, and back. ( Id. ) Conversely, considering the "paragraph B" criteria, the ALJ found that Warner-Hall's depression and anxiety were non-severe. (AR 22-23.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Warner-Hall's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 23-24.) Next, the ALJ determined that Warner-Hall had the RFC to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), except as follows:

[Warner-Hall] can lift and carry ten pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently with the ability to stand and [walk][1] for one hour in an eight-hour workday (thus sit the other 7). She can occasionally push and pull with her lower extremities. She can occasionally climb stairs, but must never climb ladders, ropes[, ] or scaffolds. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch[, ] and crawl.

(AR 24.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Warner-Hall was unable to perform her past relevant work as a restaurant manager. (AR 27.) Based on testimony from the VE, however, the ALJ determined that there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Warner-Hall could perform, including the following representative sedentary occupations: telephone answering service operator, information clerk, and final assembler. (AR 27-28.) The ALJ concluded that Warner-Hall had not been under a disability from her alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 28-29.)

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, ...

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