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Doyle v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Vermont

May 31, 2017

HOWARD G. DOYLE, JR., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 12, 15, 17)

          Geoffrey W. Crawford, Judge United States District Court

         Plaintiff Howard G. Doyle, Jr. brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), requesting reversal of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his applications for supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). Pending before the court is Mr. Doyle's motion to reverse the ruling of the Commissioner (Doc. 12) and the Commissioner's motion to affirm (Doc. 15). Also pending is Mr. Doyle's motion to modify the complaint (Doc. 17). For the reasons stated below the court GRANTS Mr. Doyle's motion to reverse, DENIES the Commissioner's motion to affirm, and REMANDS for a new decision. The court also DENIES Mr. Doyle's motion to modify his complaint.


         Mr. Doyle was 30 years old on his alleged disability onset date of September 1, 2011. He has an eleventh-grade education. (AR 98.) Mr. Doyle applied for SSI and DIB on May 14, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of September 1, 2011. (AR 23.) The claims were denied initially on September 11, 2012, and on reconsideration on November 13, 2012. (AR 23, 194, 211.) He had a hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Paul Martin on July 10, 2014. (AR 93-136.)

         At the hearing, Mr. Doyle testified that he had been in two serious car accidents. (AR 102.) The first accident, in 2000, resulted in the death of Mr. Doyle's brother, and Mr. Doyle himself suffered a severe traumatic brain injury along with other significant injuries. (AR 104.) He spent several years recovering from this accident, and began working as a driver of a garbage truck beginning in 2005. (AR 102, 118.) In September 2011, he was in another car accident. (AR 104, 748.) A few months after the second car accident, in November 2011, he fell down the stairs after he became dizzy and his knees buckled-"feel[ing] like jelly"- again hitting his head. (AR 104-05.) Prior to the 2000 accident, Mr. Doyle worked as a laborer at an auto parts store, a gas pump attendant and a prep cook in a bakery. (AR 118.) He stated that he had not looked for work since the September 2011 accident because working "would just be impossible to do." (AR 102.)

         Mr. Doyle stated that he currently lives in a small house with his girlfriend and her two children. (AR 99-100.) He has three children of his own that he sees regularly, but that do not live with him. (AR 99.)

         Mr. Doyle testified to quite limited daily activities. He stated that he generally sleeps terribly, and that when he wakes up, his back, legs, and hips are "tingly, " and his feet are numb. (AR 106.) He tries to walk back and forth in the driveway to get himself motivated in the morning, but does not do much more than that. (Id.) He said that he does not do many chores and that his girlfriend tends to do them. (Id.) He frequently takes a nap during the day because he sleeps so poorly at night, but he is "very uncomfortable" no matter what position he is in (AR 107.) With his girlfriend, he occasionally goes to the store or to pick up her children. (AR 107-08.)

         Mr. Doyle also stated that he has significant and constant physical pain throughout his body. He said his back constantly hurts, from the bottom of his shoulder blades down to his hips and buttocks. (AR 109.) The pain also radiates down his legs, into his knees, calves, and ankles. (Id.) His feet are "numb and tingly, " and become more so when he is sitting. (Id.) He also has pain in his forearms and fingers, which also are "numb and tingly, " and that some doctors have said he has carpal tunnel syndrome. (AR 111.) At the administrative hearing he was wearing braces on his wrists, which he said had been prescribed for him. (AR 110-12.) His girlfriend drove him to the hearing and on the way they had to stop twice because his feet went numb and tingled. (AR 117.)

         During the hearing, he constantly switched positions because of the pain and numbness in his hips, legs and feet. (AR 117.) He said that he had a hard time picking things up because of pain and numbness in his fingers, arms, and legs. (AR 119.) Small objects in particular are hard for him because he either drops them or squeezes them too hard. (AR 121.) He frequently puts holes in Styrofoam coffee cups because he grips them too tightly and cannot do dishes because he will drop them. (AR 122, 125.) He testified that he cannot reach his arms above his shoulders because of pain and that he cannot do repetitive activities with his hands because they will go numb or become tingly and he will drop things. (AR 122.) He testified that he thought he could lift five or ten pounds repeatedly and that he could stay standing in one spot for five minutes before he would need to change position. (AR 122-23.) He also testified to numbness and pins and needles in his hips when he walks and that he has pain in his hips when he bends. (AR 123.) He testified that he leaves his shoes untied. (Id.)

         Mr. Doyle testified to frequent headaches and dizzy spells. He said he experiences daily headaches since he fell down the stairs in 2011. (AR 112-13.) He said that they can be "pretty bad, " and are more frequent at night and when he wakes up and can be exacerbated by stress. (AR 113-14.) He said in the last month, he had had 10 to 15 headaches during the day and 30 headaches at night. (AR 115.) He typically treats his headaches with ibuprofen and by lying in a dark room with a pillow over his head. (Id.) He gets dizzy spells every day, frequently from the transition from sitting to standing or vice versa. (AR 121.) He relieves the dizziness by standing still and waiting for it to pass.

         Mr. Doyle also testified to significant mental limitations, especially memory and concentration. He said that he frequently has trouble "figuring out what word to use" and that he feels his memory problems are getting worse. (AR 102-03.) When he enters a store, he will forget what he wanted to buy, and when he puts down a drink, he will forget where he put it. (AR 103.) Mr. Doyle said that others had told him that he had a tendency in conversation to "wander off into another totally different subject." (Id.) He said that concentrating was stressful regardless of whether he was working on something simple or something with multiple steps. (Id.) Because of his trouble with concentration, he cannot sit through a 30-minute television show and understand it from start to finish, nor can he read a book through. (AR 105-06.) His girlfriend maintains his schedule for medical appointments. (AR 108-09.)

         He stated that he has trouble driving, including sitting and using his shoulders, but especially with concentration and following signs. (AR 100.) He said that he frequently gets lost while driving and is not comfortable driving outside of his community. (Id.) He said that he mostly drives to either his mother's house or his father's house, both of which are nearby. (AR 100.) He testified that, even before his 2011 accident, he would have trouble remembering new additions to his route as a garbage truck driver. (AR 118.)

         He testified that he has suicidal thoughts and that those become worse when people say bad things about him, or pick on him, which they frequently do because they mistake his limitations caused by his traumatic brain injuries for stupidity. (AR 113-14, 120.) He also testified that he has a hard time dealing with a high volume of noise and that he "just lose[s] it" under such conditions. (AR 124.)

         The ALJ issued a decision finding that Mr. Doyle was not disabled on September 19, 2014. (AR 23-36.) The Appeals Council denied his request for review on December 24, 2015. (AR 1-4.) Mr. Doyle's filed this lawsuit on January 29, 2016. (Doc. 1.)

         ALJ Decision and Appeals Council Denial

         The ALJ is required to follow the five-step process in determining a claimant's disability. Machia v. Astrue, 670 F.Supp.2d 326, 333 (D. Vt. 2009) (internal citation omitted); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The answer at each step determines if the next step must be addressed. Machia, 670 F.Supp.2d at 330. At the first step the ALJ determines if the claimant has engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity since the alleged onset date of his disability. Id. If the answer is no, step two then asks if the claimant has any "impairments" that are "severe." Id.

         If there is one or more severe impairment, step three evaluates whether any of these impairments meet the listed impairments in Appendix 1 of the regulations; if an impairment meets the listing the claimant is deemed disabled. If it does not, step four asks whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to do his past relevant work. Id. If the claimant can no longer do his past relevant work, step five asks whether the claimant is able to do any job available in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. "The claimant bears the burden of proving his case at steps one through four, . . . 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.'" Larkin v. Comm V of Soc. Sec, No. 2:10-CV-291, 2011 WL 4499296, at *2 (D. Vt. Sept. 27, 2011) (quoting Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009)).

         The ALJ found at step one that Mr. Doyle had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date, September 1, 2011. (AR 25.) At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Doyle had four severe impairments: "a traumatic brain injury with reported cognitive or memory problems and headaches, 'all-over body pain, ' carpal tunnel syndrome, and an affective disorder." (AR 25-26.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Mr. Doyle did not have an impairment that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 26-27.) The ALJ determined that Mr. Doyle had the RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c), 416.967(c), but could "only occasionally engage in fine manipulation, " and "would need to avoid ambient noise that was prolonged and excessively loud, " and was limited to "simple repetitive tasks with one to three step instructions." (AR 27-34.) At step four, the ALJ determined that that Mr. Doyle could not perform any of his past relevant work. (AR 35.) At step five, the ALJ concluded that there were other jobs available in the national economy which Mr. Doyle could perform, including dietary aide, kitchen helper, and gate attendant. (AR 35-36.) The ALJ concluded that Mr. Doyle was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from the alleged onset date of September 1, 2011 through the date of decision, September 19, 2014. (AR 35.)

         On appeal, Mr. Doyle submitted additional medical records concerning his treatment in the months between his hearing and the ALJ's decision, and his treatment after the ALJ's decision. (AR 8-19, 45-92.) The Appeals Council concluded that the evidence of his treatment before the ALJ's decision did not change the outcome of the decision, as required under 20 C.F.R. § 405.401(c) (2016)[2] for consideration. (AR 2.) It concluded that the medical records concerning the time after the ALJ's decision was "about a later time" and therefore did not affect whether he was disabled on or before the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id.) The Appeals Council then denied review. (AR 1.)

         Standard of Review

         Disability is defined by the Social Security Act in pertinent part 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). Under the Act, a claimant will only be found disabled 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." Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         When considering the ALJ'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 decision is subject to a factual review 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 fact[-]flnder."). "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. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Poupore, 566 F.3d at 305. The court is mindful that the Social Security Act is "a remedial statute to be broadly construed and liberally applied." Dousewicz v. Harris, 646 F.2d 771, 773 (2d Cir. 1981); see also, e.g., Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, No. 2:13-CV-217, 2014 WL 2118444, at *3 (D. Vt. May 21, 2014).


         Mr. Doyle challenges several aspects of the ALJ's decision and the denial of review by the Appeals Council. He contends that the ALJ improperly weighted the opinions of some of the doctors who examined or treated him, that the ALJ's hypothetical posed to the vocational expert did not properly incorporate the limitations proposed by the doctor the ALJ afforded more weight to, and that the Appeals Council should have considered new evidence he submitted after the ALJ's decision. He also asserts, in a ...

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