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Bessette v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Vermont

August 10, 2015

Becky Bessette, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 14, 15)

JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Becky Bessette 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 supplemental security income (SSI). Pending before the Court are Bessette's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 14), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 15). For the reasons stated below, Bessette's motion is GRANTED, the Commissioner's motion is DENIED, and the matter is REMANDED for further proceedings and a new decision.


Bessette was 35 years old on her alleged disability onset date of April 9, 2011. She dropped out of high school at the age of 15, after becoming pregnant with her first son. (AR 269.) She receives food stamps, Medicaid, and general assistance; and has never held a job for more than approximately two months. (AR 792.) During the alleged disability period, Bessette lived in an apartment attached to her parents' house. ( Id.; AR 42.) She has three sons, the youngest approximately 16 years old. ( Id. ) Although she maintains contact with her sons, she relinquished custody of them to family members approximately 10 years ago. ( Id.; AR 303.)

Bessette had a troubled childhood, experiencing parental neglect due to her parents' alcohol and gambling problems. (AR 269.) She had attentional and behavioral problems in school, getting into fights with teachers and peers which resulted in multiple suspensions. (AR 792.) From age seven to twelve, Bessette was molested by a family member, and thereafter was a victim of domestic abuse by her first two husbands, the fathers of her sons. ( Id.; AR 269, 288, 700, 953-54.) Her second husband committed suicide while in prison, after Bessette had left him for another man. (AR 42-43, 339, 792, 956.)

In 2003, Bessette was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder and a history of significant drug and alcohol abuse requiring multiple hospitalizations and detoxification attempts. ( See, e.g., AR 288-89, 916, 953, 957.) She began drinking alcohol at age nine and abusing drugs (mostly cocaine) at age 13; she has had at least seven residential treatments for drug and alcohol abuse. (AR 302, 792.) Bessette has a criminal history, including charges of shoplifting, burglary, holding stolen property, and assault. (AR 792.) She has been incarcerated for a total of approximately three years as a result of these charges, and has been placed in isolation at times during her incarceration because of fights with guards and other inmates. ( Id. ) At the December 2012 administrative hearing, Bessette testified that she has been sober since March 29, 2010 and has been off all drugs except Suboxone since April 2007. (AR 41-42.) She further testified that she had been taking lithium for her bipolar disorder for about nine years. (AR 36.)

In addition to bipolar disorder, Bessette has been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from her history of abusive relationships. (AR 290, 304, 598, 793, 916, 956-57.) She has also exhibited symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, intermittent explosive disorder, and personality disorder with antisocial and paranoid features. (AR 290, 304, 339, 793-94, 815, 1308.) Bessette also has sleep problems, sometimes staying awake all night and sleeping during the day. (AR 36, 289.) She suffers from back, ankle, and leg pain as well. Bessette testified at the December 2012 administrative hearing that, on a typical day, she naps (because often, she has not slept at night), watches television, and writes in a journal. (AR 37.) She stated that her mother does the cooking and food shopping, and helps with the cleaning. (AR 37-38; see also AR 303, 536.) Her Function Reports similarly indicate that she sleeps during the day and relies on her mother to clean her apartment and cook her meals. (AR 226-29, 534-37.)

In April 2011, Bessette protectively filed an application for SSI, alleging disability starting on April 9, 2011[1] (AR 51, 165, 205), due to bipolar disorder; depression; OCD; PTSD; "several phobias"; panic attacks/anxiety; and back, ankle, and leg pain (AR 209).[2] Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. On December 20, 2012, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Matthew Levin conducted a hearing on the application. (AR 28-50.) Bessette appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. (AR 44-49.) On January 14, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Bessette was not disabled under the Social Security Act from April 9, 2011 through the date of the decision. (AR 7-26.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Bessette's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-4.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Bessette filed the Complaint in this action on April 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 Bessette had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her application date. (AR 12.) At step two, the ALJ found that Bessette had the severe impairments of mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, depression/anxiety, and ADHD. ( Id. ) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Bessette's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 15.) Next, the ALJ determined that Bessette had the RFC to perform "light work, " as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), except as follows:

[Bessette] can lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; sit, stand[, ] and walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday; use her hands and feet to operate controls and to push and pull; occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch[, ] and crawl; perform simple, unskilled work in a low[-]stress environment (defined as requiring little to no change in the work setting and little to no need for the use of judgment), must avoid social interaction with the general public, can have limited social interaction with coworkers, can have occasional contact with supervisors, and is able to maintain attention and concentration for two[-]hour increments throughout an eight[-]hour work day.

(AR 17.) At the fourth step, the ALJ found that Bessette had no past relevant work, given that she had never worked at the substantial gainful activity level. (AR 20.) Finally, considering the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that there were other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Bessette could perform, including the jobs of laundry sorter, office cleaner, and price marker. (AR 21.) The ALJ concluded that Bessette ...

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