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Lyons v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Vermont

October 27, 2016

Donna Lyons, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 13, 14)

          John M. Conroy, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Donna Lyons 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 application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). Pending before the Court are Lyons's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 13), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 14). For the reasons stated below, Lyons's motion is GRANTED, the Commissioner's motion is DENIED, and the matter is REMANDED for further proceedings and a new decision.

         Background

         Lyons was 50 years old on her alleged disability onset date of October 1, 2011. She has a high school education and work experience as an owner/operator of a boiler mechanic company and a caregiver for her father-in-law. In 2011-2012, she worked for approximately six months on a part-time basis as a cashier at a local grocery store, and for approximately two weeks as an assistant manager at a retail store. She stopped working in May 2012. Lyons is married and lives with her husband, who has been disabled since the late 1990s. (AR 34, 36.)

         Lyons suffers from foot, knee, back, and hip pain, resulting in an inability to sit or stand for extended periods. She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in the fall of 2014, and was found to have 18 of 18 trigger points. (See AR 509, 528, 530, 532.) She also suffers from anxiety, panic attacks, agoraphobia, depression, and sleep problems. Lyons testified that, due to her anxiety and agoraphobia, she rarely leaves her home. (AR 46.) When she goes to medical appointments, she has her husband drive and accompany her. (AR 46-47.) Lyons further testified that she is “very dependent” on her husband (AR 47) and “get[s] sick” if she has to go anywhere without him (AR 51). She takes the following medications for her various physical and mental ailments: morphine, Diazepam, Lidocaine patches, Lidocaine creams, Xanax, Zoloft, and Gebapentin. (AR 52.) Despite her limitations, Lyons was able to do some housework (in 15-minute increments), cook limited meals, and shop in stores, for at least part of the alleged disability period. (See, e.g., AR 242, 244, 245.) She was also able to help care for her disabled husband and their dog at times during that period. (AR 244, 480.)

         In May 2013, Lyons filed her DIB application, alleging that she has been unable to work full time since October 2011 due to pain in her hip, knees, and feet; a small central disc protrusion; agoraphobia; panic attacks; anxiety; and depression. (AR 231.) Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. On March 3, 2015, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Matthew Levin conducted a hearing on the application (AR 31-65); and on April 3, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Lyons was not disabled under the Social Security Act from her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision (AR 13-25). Thereafter, Lyons submitted a request for review to the Appeals Council, wherein she asked the Council to consider new medical evidence including opinions and treatment notes from three of her treating physicians. The Council declined to consider this new evidence and denied Lyons's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-6.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Lyons filed the Complaint in this action on October 26, 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, although Lyons had worked on a part-time basis as a cashier at a convenience store and an assistant manager at a retail store during the alleged disability period, she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date of October 1, 2011. (AR 15.) At step two, the ALJ found that Lyons had the severe impairments of fibromyalgia, left patellofemoral pain (knee pain), and anxiety. (AR 16.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Lyons's degenerative disc disease was nonsevere. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Lyons's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 16-18.)

         Next, the ALJ determined that Lyons had the RFC to perform “sedentary work, ” as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except as follows:

[Lyons] can occasionally climb stairs, ladders, ropes[, ] and scaffolds[;] can frequently stoop and occasionally perform all other postural maneuvers consisting of kneeling, crouching, crawling[, ] and balancing[;] can interact appropriately with the general public[;] and can sustain routine social interaction with co[]workers and supervisors.

(AR 19.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Lyons was unable to perform her past relevant work as a care provider and an office manager. (AR 23.) Yet the ALJ found that Lyons had acquired transferable work skills from her work as an office manager in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contracting business, including “scheduling, payroll[, ] and handling calls.” (AR 24.) The ALJ thus determined that there were other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Lyons could perform, including the jobs of greeter, dispatcher, and switchboard operator. (Id.) The ALJ concluded that Lyons had not been under a disability from the alleged onset date of October 1, 2011 through April 3, 2015, the date of the decision. (AR 25.)

         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, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         In considering a Commissioner's disability decision, the court “review[s] the administrative record de novo to determine whether there is substantial evidence supporting the . . . decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard.” Machadio v. Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir. 2002) (citing Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000)); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The court's factual review of the Commissioner's decision is thus limited to determining whether “substantial evidence” exists in the record to support such decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rivera v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 964, 967 (2d Cir. 1991); see Alston v. Sullivan, 904 F.2d 122, 126 (2d Cir. 1990) (“Where there is substantial evidence to support either position, the determination is one to be made by the factfinder.”). “Substantial evidence” is more than a mere scintilla; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. ...


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