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Batease v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Vermont

March 24, 2017

Michelle Batease, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security[1], Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 12, 13)

          John M. Conroy United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Michelle Batease 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 Batease's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 12), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 13). For the reasons stated below, Batease's motion is DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.


         Batease was 36 years old on her alleged disability onset date of October 1, 2008. She completed school through the ninth grade and does not have a GED. Her job history consists of working as a dishwasher/kitchen helper, a fast-food worker, a parking lot attendant at a ski resort, a factory worker, and a cashier at Kmart. She has four children who ranged in age from 17 to 23 on September 30, 2014, the date of the administrative hearing in this matter. She also had a son who died in 1995 at the age of six, when he was hit by a car.

         Batease was in an abusive marriage for many years: the couple were together for 10 years, separated for five, and then back together for another eight, until they divorced in 2012. (See AR 744, 850, 870.) Batease's living situation has varied over the years. In April 2010, she was living with her 17-year-old son, her young adult daughter, and her daughter's boyfriend; Batease reported that they "f[au]ght with each other constantly" (AR 744) and there was a lot of stress in the household (AR 726). In January 2013, Batease was living in an apartment with her boyfriend and daughter. (AR 852.) In April of the same year, she was living with her mother and step-father. (AR 865-66, 871.) And in September 2014, she was living with her 21-year-old son and her boyfriend of over four years. (AR 49-50.) Batease does not have a driver's license, as it is "under suspension" due to her failure to pay tickets for violations. (AR 50.)

         Batease suffers from back pain, heart problems, carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ), right shoulder pain, and depression. In April 2013, she told an examining psychological consultant that her depression and anxiety began when her son was killed in 1995, and that she attempted suicide by cutting her wrists five times since 2011. (AR 871; see also AR 855.) Batease testified at the September 2014 administrative hearing that, on a typical day, she sits at home and plays games on the computer, lays down with a heating pad on her back, sits in a chair, does dishes (for no more than 10 minutes at a time), and watches television. (AR 71-72, 74, 78; see also AR 866, 872.) She further testified that she has no friends and does not see family members often. (AR 72.) She stated that she had been close with her mother, but she passed away prior to the hearing. (Id.; see also AR 66.)

         On January 24, 2013, Batease protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging that she has been unable to work due to her heart problems, major depressive disorder, chronic back pain, TMJ, CTS, "[h]istory of cutting and suicidal, " and "[n]o spleen." (AR 306.) She explained that her back "hurts all the time" (AR 327); she can hardly walk when she gets up in the morning (id.); and she has chest pain and shortness of breath (AR 328). Regarding her depression and anxiety, Batease explained that she cries and thinks about cutting herself "all the time" (AR 327), and that she gets really hot and has a hard time breathing when she goes out in public (AR 328).

         Batease's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was conducted on September 30, 2014 by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Paul Martin. (AR 44-103.) Batease appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. On January 7, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Batease was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from her alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 16-30.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Batease's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Batease filed the Complaint in this action on May 27, 2016. (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 Martin first determined that Batease had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of October 1, 2008. (AR 18.) At step two, the ALJ found that Batease had the following severe impairments: sciatica, CTS, and depression. (Id.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Batease's TMJ and right shoulder pain were non-severe. (AR 19-20.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Batease's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR20.)

         Next, the ALJ determined that Batease had the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b), with the following additional limitations:

[She can] lift[] 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand[] and walk[] four hours in an eight[-]hour workday; sit[] six hours in an eight-hour workday; occasionally climb[] ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; frequently kneel[]; [and] occasionally crouch[] and crawl[]. She is limited to frequent bilateral fingering for up to 20 minutes at a time before requiring a break. She must avoid fast-paced production requirements as well as complex tasks. She can maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for two[-]hour[] blocks; understand, remember, and carry out one[-]to[-]three[-]step tasks in a standard production pace setting; and make simple decisions. ...

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