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McDowell v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Vermont

May 4, 2016

Karen Joan McDowell, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 6, 9)

John M. Conroy United States Magistrate Judge

Plaintiff Karen McDowell 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 applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Pending before the Court are McDowell’s motion to reverse the Commissioner’s decision (Doc. 6), and the Commissioner’s motion to affirm the same (Doc. 9). For the reasons stated below, McDowell’s motion is GRANTED; the Commissioner’s motion is DENIED; and the matter is REMANDED for further proceedings and a new decision.

Background

McDowell was 45 years old on her alleged disability onset date of February 27, 2012. She attended college for three years, and thereafter obtained her paralegal certificate. (AR 30, 32.) She has work experience as an accounts payable supervisor, an asset controller, a payroll director, an accounting and benefits manager, a staff accountant, and an office manager. (AR 33-34, 155.) She is divorced, and has three adult children. (AR 30.) She lives in Bradford, Vermont with her fiancé and her 20-year old daughter. (AR 30-31.)

On February 27, 2012, McDowell underwent a surgical hysterectomy. (AR 33, 311-36.) Around that time, she stopped working at her job as an accounts payable supervisor with Green Mountain Coffee. (AR 31-33.) Within “a couple of weeks” after having the surgery (AR 37), McDowell began experiencing vertigo symptoms, including feeling “very foggy, ” “slightly disoriented, ” and off balance (AR 36). She also experienced chronic nausea, headaches, dizziness, inability to focus or concentrate, and forgetfulness. (AR 36-39.) Although McDowell testified at the December 2013 administrative hearing that she has had “some improvement” in her symptoms (AR 40), she still experiences vertigo symptoms-including nausea, dizziness, and headaches- when riding in a car, scrolling with a computer mouse, and doing any visually oriented activities such as reading, watching television, and viewing movement on a computer screen (AR 41-42).

In August 2012 and January 2013, respectively, McDowell filed applications for SSI and DIB, alleging disability beginning on the date of her hysterectomy, February 27, 2012. In her disability application, McDowell alleges that she has been unable to work as a result of her hysterectomy, vertigo symptoms, and migraine headaches. (AR 138.) Her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. On December 3, 2013, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Matthew Levin conducted a hearing on the disability application. (AR 29-53.) McDowell appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. On December 17, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding that McDowell was disabled from February 27, 2012 through October 31, 2013, but was not disabled from November 1, 2013 through the date of the decision. (AR 11-22.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied McDowell’s request for review, rendering the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, McDowell filed the Complaint in this action on April 21, 2015. (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 determined that McDowell was disabled from February 27, 2012 through October 31, 2013, due to the severe impairments of vertigo and headaches. (AR 11, 15, 18.) The ALJ further found that, on November 1, 2013, “medical improvement” occurred and McDowell’s disability ended. (AR 19.) The ALJ explained that, although McDowell still had the severe impairments of vertigo and headaches from November 2013 forward, she had the RFC to perform “light work, ” as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), during that period, except as follows:

[McDowell] can occasionally climb, balance, crouch, stoop, crawl, and kneel. [She] can perform simple, unskilled work, and can maintain attention and concentration for two-hour increments over an 8-hour workday and 40-hour workweek. She can perform limited reading of either printed or computer material, meaning less than 10 percent of the workday.

(Id.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that McDowell was unable to perform her past relevant work. (AR 20.) Based on testimony from the VE, however, the ALJ determined that there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that McDowell could perform, including the jobs of cleaner, sales attendant, and collator operator. (AR 21.) The ALJ concluded that, although McDowell was disabled from February 27, 2012 through October 31, 2013, the disability ended on November 1, 2013, when she was capable of making a successful adjustment to work. (AR 21-22.)

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, education, ...


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