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Deschamps v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

August 16, 2016

Nate L. Deschamps, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 10, 14)

          John M. Conroy United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Nate Deschamps 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 Deschamps’s motion to reverse the Commissioner’s decision (Doc. 10), and the Commissioner’s motion to affirm the same (Doc. 14). For the reasons stated below, Deschamps’s motion is DENIED, and the Commissioner’s motion is GRANTED.


         Deschamps was 30 years old on his alleged disability onset date of December 10, 2009. He exhibited behavioral problems in school and dropped out in the ninth grade. (AR 153, 276, 364-67, 377, 632.) He received special education services, and has always had great difficulty reading and writing, receiving very low grades in school and being unable to read a newspaper as an adult. (AR 145, 153, 377, 427, 476, 632-33.) Deschamps’s work experience is as a farm worker, a laborer, a tire changer, a construction worker, and a newspaper delivery driver. (AR 143-46, 326-33, 634-35.) He lost two of his most recent jobs because, in his words, he was “screwing off” and he “frightened” his employer. (AR 377-78.)

         Deschamps has seven children, ranging in ages from approximately six to twenty, six of them with different mothers. (AR 376, 427, 476.) He helps care for one of these children and has no involvement with two of them (AR 427, 476); the record does not indicate his involvement with the remaining four, other than to state he has “occasional” contact with three of them (AR 427). During the relevant period, Deschamps lived at his girlfriend’s house and spent time at the house of an “‘old man’ who ha[d] taken him under his wing” and who delivered newspapers with Deschamps. (AR 378; see AR 476.) At other times during the relevant period, he lived by himself, but with his mother staying often to prepare meals, do household chores, and help him care for his daughter when she visited a few days each week. (AR 633, 646, 648-49.)

         Deschamps has a long history of criminal activity resulting in incarceration for crimes including forgery, cashing checks that did not belong to him, breaking and entering, driving a dump truck without a commercial driver’s license, and domestic assault. (AR 377, 423-24, 427.) On a typical day during the beginning of the alleged disability period, Deschamps delivered newspapers at night, played on the internet, watched television, texted and emailed with people, napped, visited with his girlfriend and their toddler, and helped his mother mow her lawn. (AR 157-63, 282, 378.) He ate mostly sandwiches and microwave meals which he bought or prepared on his own, managed his own hygiene, and did some cleaning occasionally. (AR 159, 283-84, 378.) Later in the alleged disability period, Deschamps spent his days reclining in a chair, watching television, and “wander[ing] around the house.” (AR 647.) He went grocery shopping once a month, at times when the store was relatively unpopulated. (Id.) He saw his mother every day, and for three days a week he cared for his five-year old daughter with his mother’s assistance. (AR 648-49.) His mother prepared his dinner and did most of the household chores. (AR 646.)

         Deschamps suffers from pain issues, mental health problems, and difficulty sleeping. He is morbidly obese and chews tobacco. (AR 9, 1288, 1294-95, 427.) He testified that he is unable to work because of back pain, knee problems, and an inability to get along with people. (AR 636-37.) He further testified that he is able to sit comfortably for only about ten minutes, stand in one spot for only about five minutes, and walk for only about one-tenth of a mile before his knees “giv[e] out.” (AR 642.) Regarding his mental problems, Deschamps has been diagnosed with recurrent major depression, mood disorder NOS (not otherwise specified), personality disorder NOS, rule out bipolar disorder, probable learning disorder NOS, social anxiety disorder, and adjustment disorder with mixed emotion and explosive behavior. (AR 379, 402, 425, 444-51, 475, 1253.) Deschamps testified that he feels tense, nervous, aggravated, and impatient around people, and thus tries to avoid them. (AR 146, 377, 650.) He stated that he “tell[s] people how it is and usually that ends . . . in confrontation.” (AR 146.) He described himself as always having been “somewhat depressed” (AR 377) and “moody, ” to the point of frightening those close to him (AR 376).

         In December 2009, Deschamps filed applications for SSI and DIB alleging that he stopped working on September 15, 2008[1] because of his bipolar disorder. (AR 243-52, 275.) The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Deschamps timely requested an administrative hearing, which was conducted on January 4, 2012 by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Paul Martin. (AR 134-72.) Deschamps appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. On February 24, 2012, ALJ Martin issued a decision finding that Deschamps was not disabled under the Social Security Act from his alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 62-72.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Deschamps’s request for review, rendering the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Deschamps filed a Complaint with this Court on August 7, 2013.

         On April 24, 2014, upon consideration of an assented-to motion for an order remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings, this Court reversed and remanded the matter. (AR 690.) Soon thereafter, the Appeals Council vacated ALJ Martin’s February 2012 decision; ordered that Deschamps’s claim be consolidated with a claim he filed in July 2013 (see AR 970-80); and remanded the matter for consideration of newly submitted evidence including Dr. Burdick’s June 2012 opinion, reassessment of Deschamps’s residual functional capacity, and further testimony from a VE if warranted. (AR 698-99.)

         On May 19, 2015, a second administrative hearing was held, this time before ALJ Matthew Levin. (AR 627-63.) Deschamps again appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney; and a VE also testified at the hearing. On June 18, 2015, ALJ Levin issued a decision finding that Deschamps was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from his alleged disability onset date of December 10, 2009 through the date of the decision. (AR 599-611.) After the ALJ’s decision became final, Deschamps filed the Complaint in this action on August 27, 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 first determined that Deschamps had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date. (AR 602.) At step two, the ALJ found that Deschamps had the following severe impairments: degenerative changes of the spine, obesity, asthma, depression, anxiety, and a personality disorder. (Id.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Deschamps’s diabetes mellitus, patella-femoral syndrome, sleep apnea syndrome, low intellectual ability, and lateral epicondylitis were non-severe. (AR 603-04.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Deschamps’s impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 604-06.)

         Next, the ALJ determined that Deschamps had the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except as follows:

[Deschamps] needs to avoid all ropes/ladders/scaffolds, but he can occasionally climb stairs/ramps and he can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch[, ] and crawl. He needs to avoid exposure to hazards. He is limited to simple, unskilled work. He must avoid social interaction with the general public, but he can sustain brief, superficial social interaction with co[]workers and supervisors in a semi-isolated work location. With these limitations, he can maintain attention and concentration for 2-hour increments throughout an 8-hour workday.

(AR 606.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Deschamps was unable to perform his past relevant work as a construction worker, a dairy farm worker, a tire changer, and a newspaper delivery driver. (AR 610.) Finally, based on testimony from the VE, the ALJ determined that Deschamps could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including the jobs of office cleaner, price marker, and flower care worker. (AR 610-11.) The ALJ concluded that Deschamps had not been under a disability from the alleged onset date of December 10, 2009 through the date of the decision. (AR 611.)

         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 his “impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work[, ] but cannot, considering his age, ...

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