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Bowen v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Vermont

October 9, 2015

Angela M. Bowen, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 10, 15)


Plaintiff Angela Bowen brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) 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 Bowen’s motion to reverse the Commissioner’s decision (Doc. 10), and the Commissioner’s motion to affirm the same (Doc. 15). For the reasons stated below, Bowen’s motion is DENIED, and the Commissioner’s motion is GRANTED.


Bowen was 30 years old when she filed her SSI application in January 2012. (AR 141, 976.) She has a high school education, and worked for brief periods from 1997 through 2000 as a cashier, a stocker, and a child-care worker. (AR 117, 125.) She has four young children, all of who were living with her on the date of the administrative hearing in April 2013. (AR 976-77.)

Bowen married the father of her children when she was 18 years old. (AR 869.) The couple divorced in 2010 after experiencing stress in the household largely due to Bowen’s husband’s verbally abusive behavior, their children’s medical issues including one having epilepsy and another testing on the autism spectrum, and their house burning down in November 2009. (AR 869-70.) In July 2011, Bowen married her second husband, who is disabled due to a back impairment. (AR 870, 977, 981-82.)

Bowen suffers from migraine headaches, fibromyalgia symptoms, and general recurring pain. (AR 974, 980.) She claims she is unable to work because she is unreliable and cannot make plans due to her pain. (AR 977.) She has tried many different medications, including Imitrex for her headaches, but has found none effective. (AR 980.) She has had numerous emergency room visits, inpatient stays, and rehabilitation sessions at Rutland Regional Medical Center (RRMC) for treatment of her various pain issues, particularly her headaches. (See, e.g., AR 732 (myofascial pain, low back pain, knee pain), 735 (myofascial pain, low back pain, right hand paresthesias), 753 (right flank pain), 756 (migraine, nausea, vomiting, photophobia), 758 (migraine), 761 (chronic back pain), 763 (myofascial pain, low back pain, right hand paresthesias), 907 (severe headache), 912 (headaches), 949 (headache), 955 (headache), 963 (headache).) Bowen testified at the April 2013 administrative hearing that when she gets a severe migraine headache, she is “down and out” for two to three days and “end[s] up in the emergency room with IV medications for eight hours, sometimes longer.” (AR 980.)

In a February 2011 Function Report, Bowen stated that, despite her impairments, she was caring for her four children, who ranged in ages between seven and twelve at the time, although “most days are a challenge due to my condition.” (AR 134.) In a more recent Function Report, Bowen stated that “[t]here have been plenty of [d]ays when my children[’]s step father has had to take them to school and get them ready because I couldn’t get out of bed because my body hurt so bad.” (AR 153.)

Bowen also suffers from depression and sleeping problems. She testified that she generally sleeps from between 2 and 4 a.m. until about 1 p.m., and then naps in the late afternoon.[1] (AR 983.) In her February 2011 Function Report, Bowen stated that she does not fall asleep until between 3 and 5 a.m. because “my body aches so bad.” (AR 133.) She testified that, on days when she is awake for most of the day, she “could very easily just l[ie] down and sleep for seven hours” (AR 983), and that, on a typical day, she does “very little” (AR 979), and is not even able to pick up her children from school (AR 981).

On January 11, 2012, Bowen protectively filed an application for SSI, alleging that she became disabled on January 1, 2008.[2] (AR 48-49, 141-143.) In her application, Bowen claims that the following conditions limit her ability to work: fibromyalgia, chronic migraine headaches, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, anxiety, chronic urinary tract infections, chronic kidney infections, and asthma. (AR 145.) She explains: “There [are] days when I can’t get out of bed because the pain is so bad . . . . I don’t ever know if I’ll be able to continuously do everyday things due to the chronic pain. I c[an]’t go for walks or do dishes all the time, I get tired and . . . am in such pain that I need to go to bed.” (AR 152.) Bowen’s application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was conducted on April 1, 2013 by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Ruth Kleinfeld. (AR 968-85.) Bowen appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. On May 22, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Bowen has not been disabled under the Social Security Act since January 11, 2012, the date her application was filed. (AR 17-25.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Bowen’s request for review, rendering the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 7-9.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Bowen filed the Complaint in this action on June 9, 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 Kleinfeld first determined that Bowen had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 11, 2012, the date she filed her application. (AR 19.) At step two, the ALJ found that Bowen had the severe impairments of chronic pain syndrome (including fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis) and headaches. (Id.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Bowen’s depression and anxiety were non-severe. (AR 19-21.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Bowen’s impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 21.) Next, the ALJ determined that Bowen had the RFC to perform the full range of sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a), “and she ha[d] the ability to attend to tasks, adjust to changes in the workplace, and interact with others.” (AR 21.) At step four, the ALJ found that Bowen had no past relevant work. (AR 24.) However, the ALJ determined that there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Bowen could perform (id.), and ...

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