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Bristol v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Vermont

June 6, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          William K. Sessions III District Court Judge

         Plaintiff Robert Bristol brings the present action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to challenge the final decision of Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying his claim for disability insurance benefits. Currently before the Court are Bristol’s motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner (ECF No. 7), and the Commissioner’s motion to affirm (ECF No. 11). For the reasons explained below, the Court denies Bristol’s motion and grants the motion of the Commissioner. This case is therefore dismissed.


         I. Procedural History

         Bristol applied for Social Security disability insurance ("SSDI") benefits on September 17, 2012, alleging a disability that began on May 26, 2012. A.R. 147.[1] The application was denied initially on November 30, 2012, A.R. 82, and upon reconsideration on February 15, 2013, A.R. 92. At Bristol’s request, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Thomas Merrill conducted a hearing on the matter on March 12, 2014. A.R. 30. ALJ Merrill issued a decision denying Bristol’s application on April 28, 2014. A.R. 23. On June 19, 2014, Bristol filed a request for review by the Appeals Council. A.R. 5-6. The Appeals Council denied Bristol’s request on December 2, 2014, rendering ALJ Merrill’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. A.R. 1.

         II. Factual Background

         A. Non-Medical Evidence

         At the time of the hearing in front of ALJ Merrill, Bristol was 38 years old and lived with his family in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. A.R. 31, 190. He obtained his GED in 1994, id., and worked as a warehouse manager from 1996 until 2012, A.R. 168.

         1. Bristol’s Social Security Questionnaires

         On October 28, 2012, Bristol filled out a disability questionnaire as part of his application for SSDI. A.R. 190-97. At that time, Bristol reported that he suffered from Meniere’s disease, which caused him to undergo frequent attacks of dizziness, vomiting, and loss of balance. A.R. 190. He further indicated that he was bipolar, prone to anxiety and panic attacks, and that he experienced lower back pain, knee pain, and severe ringing in his ears. Id. In spite of those conditions, Bristol provided that he was able to take care of his baby while his wife was at work; help care for his children and the dog; manage his own personal care; handle money and go grocery shopping; and play with his children and visit with friends. A.R. 191-94. Bristol also reported that he could follow spoken and written instructions, finish the activities that he began, and get along with figures of authority. A.R. 195. Finally, Bristol indicated that he did not handle stress or changes in routine well and that he suffered from a fear of being alone. A.R. 196.

         Several months later, on January 16, 2013, Bristol again completed a questionnaire in connection with his request for reconsideration. A.R. 207-14. In the second questionnaire, he stated that he experienced episodes of extreme dizziness, vomiting, and loss of balance approximately three times per day, with each episode lasting roughly two hours. A.R. 207. He also wrote that his back problems made it painful for him to bend and lift objects, and that his anxiety limited his ability to leave his house. Id. According to Bristol, when he was not suffering from the symptoms of Meniere’s disease, he could care for his children, tidy the house, drive a car, and go grocery shopping with his wife. A.R. 208-10. He also reported that he could manage his own personal care, follow spoken and written instructions, pay attention normally, finish the activities that he began, and get along with authority figures. A.R. 209-13. Finally, Bristol reiterated that he did not handle stress well and that he feared being alone. A.R. 213.

         2. Bristol’s Testimony

         At the hearing before ALJ Merrill on March 12, 2014, Bristol testified that he continues to suffer from episodes of dizziness, vomiting, and loss of balance. A.R. 32. Bristol stated that he was initially diagnosed with Meniere’s disease in his right ear, and that he attempted to treat his symptoms through both biweekly steroid injections and surgery. Id. He indicated that neither procedure was successful. A.R. 33. Bristol added that he was later diagnosed with Meniere’s disease in his left ear as well, and that he also received surgery on that ear. Id.

         According to Bristol’s testimony, the onslaught of symptoms he experiences is highly sporadic. Id. He stated that on some days he endures three to five episodes, while on others, he undergoes none at all. Id. Bristol maintained that the length of the episodes also varies from 20 minutes to several hours. Id. When he experiences an attack, he provided, he cannot stand or keep his eyes open. A.R. 37. Bristol testified that he has medication for his symptoms, but that the medication causes him to become extremely tired and to fall asleep. A.R. 38.

         With respect to his mental health, Bristol reported that he suffers from deep anxiety related to his Meniere’s disease and that he prefers to stay close to home. A.R. 39. He stated that he saw a mental health expert for approximately six months regarding that issue, and that he takes two medications regularly. A.R. 40. In addition, Bristol provided that he has long experienced regular back pain and that he drinks alcohol with his wife roughly twice a month. A.R. 42.

         3. Vocational Expert’s Testimony

         James T. Parker, a vocational expert who testified at the hearing, stated that Bristol’s previous employment consisted of two distinct responsibilities. A.R. 44. First, Bristol primarily served as a warehouse supervisor. Id. Second, Bristol was responsible for operating a forklift. Id. According to Parker, Bristol’s prior work as a warehouse supervisor is defined by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") as light and skilled. Id. Parker further indicated that the DOT defines the operation of a forklift as medium exertion and semi-skilled. A.R. 44-45.

         During Parker’s examination, ALJ Merrill posed a hypothetical scenario in which Bristol could lift 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; stand and walk for six hours; sit for six hours; use his hands and feet to push, pull, and operate controls; and maintain his balance frequently. A.R. 45. The hypothetical also provided that Bristol could not be exposed to unprotected heights and hazardous machinery. Id. Under those circumstances, Parker indicated that Bristol would not be able to drive the forklift because he would be unfit to operate hazardous machinery. Id. Bristol would be able to perform the supervisory responsibilities of his warehouse supervisor position, however, as that role primarily involves the delegation of tasks to others. Id. In addition, Parker opined that Bristol would be able to work as an auto dealer, a janitor, or a groundskeeper. A.R. 46.

         Under a second hypothetical scenario, ALJ Merrill changed the circumstances such that Bristol could sit for six hours and stand or walk for less than two hours. Id. If Bristol could not complete an eight-hour workday, Parker suggested that he would not be capable of maintaining any full-time job. A.R. 47.

         Yet, if he could sit for six hours and stand or walk for a full two hours, Parker opined that Bristol would be able to engage in light or sedentary work. Id. Such work would include positions such as a production sorter, a tile inspector, and a telephone information clerk. A.R. 48. Finally, Parker indicated that if Bristol required two or three unscheduled 30 minute breaks throughout the day, in addition to regularly scheduled breaks, he would not be able to maintain any job at all. A.R. 49.

         B. Medical Evidence

         On November 24, 2010, Bristol checked into the emergency room at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital. A.R. 276. He reported that he had experienced a sudden episode of dizziness and vomiting three days prior, and that those symptoms had continued intermittently ever since. Id. Stanley Baker, M.D. conducted an examination and recorded a clinical impression of vertigo. A.R. 276-77. Dr. Baker gave Bristol 25 milligrams of Meclizine, which subjectively improved Bristol’s condition. A.R. 276. Bristol was then released. A.R. 277.

         On April 7, 2011, Bristol was seen at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for an "evaluation of ear symptoms of Tinnitus, fluctuating hearing loss and vertigo." A.R. 246. Bristol indicated that he had a five-year history of intermittent tinnitus in his right ear and a fluctuating loss of hearing. Id. He also reported that he had a six to seven-month history of vertigo associated with his ear symptoms. Id. The vertigo involved both nausea and vomiting. Id. Bristol stated that he had been taking Meclizine, which he found useful for treating his symptoms. Id. Peter Dixon, P.A., recorded an impression of Meniere’s disease and recommended that Bristol return for a review in three months. A.R. 247.

         Over a year later, on May 25, 2012, Bristol returned to the emergency room at Northeast Vermont Regional Hospital. A.R. 278. He reported that he had been diagnosed with Meniere’s disease and indicated that he had just suffered an episode of dizziness, ringing in his ears, and vomiting. Id. Dr. Baker recorded clinical impressions of vertigo and Meniere’s disease, and administered one liter of saline, four milligrams of Zofran, and 25 milligrams of Meclizine. A.R. 278-79. Bristol then indicated that his conditions had improved, and he was released after treatment. A.R. 279. He stopped working the next day. A.R. 168.

         On August 20, 2012, Bristol saw Daniel Morrison, M.D. at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for an evaluation of his Meniere’s disease. A.R. 240-41. Bristol informed Dr. Morrison that he had an 18-24 month history of episodic vertigo associated with tinnitus, pressure, and decreased hearing in his right ear. A.R. 240. Bristol also stated that approximately two months earlier, he had begun experiencing episodes of hearing fluctuation and tinnitus in his left ear. Id. With respect to the vertigo, Bristol reported that he typically experienced dizziness two times per week for two to three hours per episode. Id. The vertigo was accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Id. After conducting a series of examinations, Dr. Morrison diagnosed Bristol with bilateral Meniere‚Äôs disease. A.R. 241. Dr. Morrison indicated that due to ...

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