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King v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Vermont

September 21, 2015

Frank King, Jr., Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 7, 8)

JOHN M. CONROY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

Plaintiff Frank King, Jr. brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act, requesting review and reversal of the second decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, denying his application for disability insurance benefits. Pending before the Court are King’s motion to reverse the Commissioner’s decision (Doc. 7), and the Commissioner’s motion to affirm the same (Doc. 8). For the reasons stated below, the Court GRANTS King’s motion, in part; DENIES the Commissioner’s motion; and REMANDS for further proceedings and yet another decision.

Background

King was 53 years old on his amended alleged disability onset date of November 8, 2001. He completed school through the 11th grade and thereafter received a GED. He has worked as a truck driver, a highway maintenance worker, and a highway maintenance supervisor. His most significant work was as a bridge mechanic for the State of Vermont, starting in approximately 1969 and continuing in various related state jobs for nearly 30 years. This work was labor-intensive, requiring King to be on his feet all day, exerting his upper extremities for much of the time.

King began experiencing pain in his shoulders and knees in the late 1980s. In July 1996, he accepted early retirement, hoping to find a less physically demanding job that he could do on a full- or part-time basis. But his pain worsened after his 1996 retirement, and he has not returned to work, other than doing infrequent temporary jobs as a commercial driver.

In December 2009, King filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning July 31, 1996 (AR 148) due to arthritis in his shoulders and knee problems (AR 165). In a March 2010 disability report, King stated that his shoulder pain prevented him from doing things around the house and getting a good night’s sleep, and made it difficult to reach. (AR 198.) He also stated that he had back and foot pain. (Id.) In a later disability report, King stated that he had “[c]ontinued chronic pain, ” and that the arthritis in his knees and hands continued to progressively worsen. (AR 201.)

King’s disability application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he timely requested an administrative hearing. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Paul Martin conducted the hearing on June 8, 2011. (AR 525–61.) Just before the hearing, King amended his alleged disability onset date from July 31, 1996 to November 8, 2001, making the alleged disability period from November 8, 2001 through December 31, 2001, his date last insured. (AR 528.) King appeared and testified at the hearing, and was represented by counsel. A vocational expert (VE) also appeared and testified at the hearing. (AR 547–61.)On June 24, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that King was not disabled under the Social Security Act during the alleged disability period. (AR 9–16.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied King’s request for review, rendering the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1–3.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, King filed an action in this Court on December 12, 2012.

On July 31, 2013, finding that the Commissioner failed to meet her burden at step five, the Court remanded the case to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings. (AR 582–98.) The Appeals Council then remanded the case to ALJ Martin for a second administrative hearing, which occurred on May 8, 2014. (AR 473–524.) King appeared and testified again, represented by counsel. Another VE also appeared and testified at the hearing. (AR 491–522.) On May 23, 2014, the ALJ issued a second decision on King’s claim, again finding that King was not disabled during the alleged disability period. (AR 457–66.) On August 18, 2014, King filed the Complaint in this action. (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 the claimant’s 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 the 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, in his most recent decision on King’s claim, ALJ Martin first determined that King had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from his amended alleged disability onset date of November 8, 2001 through his date last insured of December 31, 2001. (AR 459.) At step two, the ALJ found that King had the following severe impairments: “amblyopia[1] of the left eye, degenerative arthritis of the knees and ankles, bursitis of the left shoulder, degenerative arthritis of the right [joint between the collarbone and the top of the right shoulder blade, ] and arthritic changes of the hands.” (AR 460.) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of King’s impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 461.) Next, the ALJ determined that King had the RFC to perform “light work, ” as defined in 20 C.F.R.

§ 404.1567(b), except as follows:

[King] was limited from standing and walking more than 4 hours during the workday. He was able to sit for up to 6 hours. He could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but he could not climb ropes/ladders or scaffolds. He could occasionally crouch and kneel. He could frequently stoop, but he could not crawl. He had monocular vision. He needed to avoid unprotected heights and dangerous ...

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