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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Vermont

January 23, 2017

Morya L. Smith, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 6, 7)

          John M. Conroy United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Morya Smith 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 Smith's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 6), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 7). For the reasons stated below, Smith's motion is DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.


         Smith was 33 years old on her alleged disability onset date of June 30, 2010. (AR 59, 293.) She graduated from high school in 1994, and completed cosmetology school in 2006. (AR 37, 59, 294.) She has worked as a sales clerk at Home Depot and an office worker at a nursing home. (AR 36, 60.) Additionally, she worked as a hairstylist from approximately January 2006 through June 2010, and was working ten hours per week as a hairstylist at JC Penney in February 2012. (AR 60, 294.) During the alleged disability period, Smith lived in an apartment with her adolescent daughter for a period, and in a house with her boyfriend and each of their adolescent daughters at other times. (See AR 313, 333, 353, 651-52.)

         At the February 2012 administrative hearing, Smith testified that she is unable to work because she sleeps a lot, gets angry “pretty easily, ” has anxiety, is “very irritable, ” and “ha[s] a hard time with authority.” (AR 61.) She stated that there are days when “I feel like I'm going to explode and burst out of my skin.” (Id.) She also testified that she gets irritable, nervous, and confused in stressful situations. (AR 64.) For example, if her supervisor at work tells her to do something different or disciplines her, she “get[s] angry and . . . leave[s].” (Id.) She also has arguments with her coworkers because they make her angry. (AR 65.) Smith further stated that, on a typical day, she sleeps; except on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she picks up her daughter from school, sometimes eats with her daughter, and watches television. (AR 61-62.) At the more recent May 2014 administrative hearing, Smith testified that she works one day a week for between three and five hours (AR 33), but she was about to begin a one-month medical leave due to a new medication making her “extremely tired” (AR 34).

         Smith's Function Reports from November 2010 and February 2011 indicate that, during that period, she went to the gym on an almost daily basis; cared for her adolescent daughter when she was not in school; cooked meals; did chores around the house; and slept. (AR 313-15, 317, 333-35, 353-60.) She had no hobbies other than going to the gym, and her sister shopped for her and managed her bills. (AR 62, 316-17, 336-37, 353-60.) The Reports indicate that Smith's father and other family members committed suicide; and that she has mood swings, anger problems, and difficulty getting along with others, especially authority figures. (AR 318-20, 338-40, 353-60.)

         In July 2010, Smith filed applications for SSI and DIB, alleging that she stopped working on June 30, 2010 due to bipolar disorder. (AR 293.) In an updated disability form filed in January 2011, Smith added that she also has borderline personality disorder and alcohol abuse. (AR 346.) Smith's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was conducted on February 13, 2012 by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Thomas Merrill. (AR 56-77.) Smith appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. On March 12, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Smith was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 130-39.) About a year later, on June 12, 2013, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ for resolution of several specific issues. (AR 145-47.) Pursuant to the remand order, ALJ Merrill conducted a second administrative hearing on May 19, 2014. (AR 30-54.) On July 21, 2014, the ALJ issued a new decision, again finding that Smith was not disabled. (12-24.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Smith's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Smith filed the Complaint in this action on February 24, 2016. (Doc. 1.)

         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 Merrill first determined that, although Smith had worked after her alleged disability onset date of June 30, 2010, her earnings were below substantial gainful activity limits, and thus she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. (AR 14.) At step two, the ALJ found that Smith had the severe impairments of bipolar affective disorder and alcohol abuse. (AR 15.) The ALJ noted that Smith's alcohol abuse was in remission, but found that the condition was “not material” because Smith was “not disabled even when she was using [alcohol].” (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Smith's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 15-16.)

         Next, the ALJ determined that Smith had the RFC to perform “a full range of work at all exertional levels, ” but with the following nonexertional limitations:

[Smith] is limited to one[-] to three[-]step tasks and is capable of routine interaction with the general public, supervisors[, ] and co[]workers, and she is able to manage routine changes in work tasks. She is able to sustain concentration, persistence[, ] and pace for two-hour periods over an eight-hour workday through a typical workweek.

(AR 17.) Given this RFC, and based on testimony from the VE, the ALJ found that Smith was capable of performing her past relevant work as a sales clerk and an office worker, both as described and as generally performed in the economy. (AR 22-23.) Alternatively, and again based on testimony from the VE, the ALJ determined that Smith could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including the representative occupations of cleaner and price marker. (AR 23-24.) The ALJ concluded that Smith had not been under a disability from her alleged disability onset date of June 30, 2010 through July 21, 2014, the date of the ALJ's second decision. (AR 24.)

         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, ...

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