United States District Court, D. Vermont
OPINION AND ORDER
JOHN M. CONROY, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Jared Stanzione 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 his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Pending before the Court are Stanzione's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 12), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 15). For the reasons stated below, Stanzione's motion is GRANTED, in part; the Commissioner's motion is DENIED; and the matter is REMANDED for further proceedings and a new decision.
Stanzione was 29 years old on his alleged disability onset date of December 28, 2008. He has a high school education, and has held many jobs, including as a carpenter, a construction worker, a wreath maker, and a garbage collector. (AR 26, 38-39, 193.) He testified that he quit most of these jobs after having problems understanding and getting along with supervisors and coworkers, resulting in him "being very violent and angry." (AR 543; see AR 330, 547.) In 2008, he was "let go" of his most recent job, which involved setting up and running machines for Newport Furniture Parts, a wood furniture manufacturer. (AR 233, 542.)
Stanzione was born in New Jersey. In 1982, when he was a toddler, his family moved to Island Pond, Vermont, to join a religious community called The Twelve Tribes. (AR 214, 329, 445.) While there, Stanzione was separated from his family because the cult believed it was not beneficial for children to live with their parents. (AR 445.) Stanzione was educated by the cult until fourth grade, when his father took him and his siblings and left the cult, entering the children into the public school system. (AR 264, 329, 445.) Stanzione experienced difficulty in school, struggling academically and having problems sitting still and paying attention; he was thus placed in special education classes. ( Id.; AR 323, 543-44.) In May 2009, consulting psychiatrist Robert Linder, MD, recorded that, while living in the cult, Stanzione was beaten with a rod, spanked with a paddle, and starved every Sunday. (AR 322.) Dr. Linder further recorded that Stanzione lived in a foster home for a period, where he was also "spanked and beaten with a paddle" and "told... the devil was in him." (AR 323.) In August 2009, consulting psychologist Patricia Stone, PhD, recorded that Stanzione "experienced a great deal of trauma while involved with the Church, because he had a difficult time learning." (AR 329.) In October 2010, Stanzione's treating nurse practitioner, Wendy Berman, APRN (Advanced Practice Registered Nurse), noted that Stanzione "has a long history of abuse by the church in Island Pond where he grew up." (AR 789.) In December 2012, Stanzione's treating mental health counselor, Gretchen Lewis, LCMHC, stated in a treatment note: "It is sadly clear that [Stanzione] had no maternal bonding and was forced into very difficult situations way too young. Furthermore, it seems clear that [Stanzione] had mental health and cognitive struggles at a young age and was given no support." (AR 797.)
In September 2009, Stanzione was living with his father, sister, and her sister's two children ages three and six. (AR 328.) By December 2010, when the first administrative hearing in this matter was held, Stanzione was living with only his father. (AR 34.) At the second administrative hearing, held in April 2013, Stanzione testified that his sister no longer lived with him and his father because Stanzione "was always getting angry at her and throwing stuff at her." (AR 548.) He explained that fighting within the family, especially involving him, "drove [his sister] away." ( Id. ) He further testified that he had problems getting along with supervisors, coworkers, medical providers, and his attorney. (AR 547-48.) This testimony is supported by NP Berman's October 2010 treatment note stating that Stanzione "can have a very explosive disorder" and has "continuing issues with paranoia around medical issues." (AR 789.) Berman also stated that Stanzione had "legal issues" and "minimal social and family supports." ( Id. ) Stanzione's "legal issues" include 2009 charges for Burglary and Petty Larceny, for which Stanzione spent 15 days in jail and received four years of probation. (AR 318, 328, 566-67.)
In August 2009, Stanzione filed applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits, alleging that he has been unable to work since December 28, 2008 due to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), compulsive behavior, and a thyroid disorder. (AR 186.) He explained that he "ha[s] a hard time understanding other people[, ]... ha[s] a difficult time communicating with other[s][, and] do[es] not get... along with others." ( Id. ) His applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he timely requested an administrative hearing. On December 3, 2010, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Thomas Merrill conducted a hearing on Stanzione's disability application. (AR 22-51.) Stanzione appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. On February 4, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Stanzione was not disabled under the Social Security Act from December 28, 2008 through the date of the decision. (AR 7-16.) Approximately three months later, the Decision Review Board issued a notice stating that it had not completed its review of the case in the time allowed, and thus the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3.) Stanzione filed a timely appeal with this Court, and on April 26, 2012, the Court issued an Order remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings (Remand Order), as requested in the parties' "Assented-to Motion for Voluntary Remand and Entry of Final Judgment under Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)." (AR 570-73.) Soon thereafter, pursuant to the Court's Remand Order, the Appeals Council issued an Order vacating the decision of the Commissioner and remanding to an ALJ for reevaluation of the medical opinions and Stanzione's RFC, and to obtain supplemental evidence from a VE to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on Stanzione's occupational base. (AR 638-40.)
A second administrative hearing was held before ALJ Merrill on April 17, 2013. (AR 539-608.) The ALJ stated on the record that the hearing was "to clarify the vocational testimony and it looks like due to a typo." (AR 541.) Stanzione again appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel. A VE also testified at the hearing. On May 22, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision again finding that Stanzione was not disabled under the Social Security Act from December 28, 2008, through the date of the decision. (AR 520-31.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Stanzione's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 506-09.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Stanzione filed the Complaint in this action on October 22, 2014. (Doc. 1.)
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 Merrill first determined that Stanzione had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date of December 28, 2008. (AR 522.) At step two, the ALJ found that Stanzione had the severe impairments of ADHD by history, learning disorder, and alcohol abuse in remission. ( Id. ) Conversely, the ALJ found that Stanzione's PTSD, compulsive behavior, thyroid condition, obesity, obstructive sleep apnea, back pain, and learning disorder were nonsevere. (AR 523-24.) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Stanzione's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 524.)
Next, the ALJ determined that Stanzione had the RFC to perform "a full range of work at all exertional levels, " but with the following nonexertional limitations:
[H]e has sufficient understanding and memory for 1 to 3 step instructions; has sufficient concentration, persistence[, ] and pace to sustain for two[-]hour bocks of time through the work day [and] work week in one[-]to[-][three][-]step work activities, is capable of routine interactions with the public, co-workers[, ] and supervisors, can manage changes expected in routine work activities, is aware of hazards, can travel, and can plan and set goals.
(AR 525.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Stanzione was capable of performing his past relevant work as a store laborer and a concrete company laborer. (AR 529.) Alternatively, the ALJ determined that there were other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Stanzione could perform, including the representative occupations of cleaner and salvage laborer. (AR 530.) The ALJ concluded that Stanzione had not been under a ...