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Maskell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Vermont

June 27, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 8, 9)

          Geoffrey W. Crawford, Judge.

         Plaintiff Kyle Michael Maskell, 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. Maskell's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 8) and the Commissioner's motion to affirm (Doc. 9). For the reasons stated below, the court GRANTS Mr. Maskell's motion to reverse and DENIES the Commissioner's motion to affirm.


         Mr. Maskell, born in 1988, applied for SSI and DIB benefits on January 9, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of December 31, 2010. (AR 30, 55.) The claims were denied initially on My 3, 2013, and on reconsideration on October 4, 2013. (AR 30, 113, 130, 148.) At his hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Matthew Levin on January 6, 2015, Mr. Maskell amended his alleged onset date to May 9, 2011. (AR 30, 54-55.)

         At the hearing, Mr. Maskell testified that he went to school through ninth grade, and, while he had attempted to obtain a GED, he had not obtained it yet. (AR 55.) He lives with his girlfriend and daughter, and receives both food stamps and Medicaid benefits. (AR 56.)

         Mr. Maskell testified that he had not worked since May 2011 and had not performed any small or odd jobs during that time either. (AR 56.) The ALJ asked Mr. Maskell to explain why he had previously reported to medical professionals that he had different "odd jobs" after May 2011. (AR 56-57.) Mr. Maskell stated that in "no way" had he earned more than $ 1, 080 in a month doing odd jobs. (AR 57.)

         Mr. Maskell's last job, in 2009 and 2010, had been at a recycling or waste disposal plant run by Casella, where he had worked as a line sorter. (AR 58, 74.) He said that he had "lots of anxiety and lots of stress" when working there and had frequent arguments and problems with his supervisors and coworkers. (AR 58-59.) He was fired after he tossed a glass bottle into a wall and it shattered near another employee. (AR 58-59.) He had also previously worked at a K-Mart for three years, stocking shelves and gathering carts. (AR 59.) At work, he would try to avoid customers and stay off the sales floor "as much as I could because it was just. . . too stressful." (AR 60.) He would get severe anxiety being around "more than five strangers" and was frequently angry with coworkers and supervisors. (AR 61.) He handled his anger by yelling, breaking things in the stock room, and isolating himself. (AR 61.) On one occasion, he "threw a TV down a flight of stairs in the back stock room, " and on another he "ripped a railing off the wall." (AR 69.) He was fired from that job after he was placed on cashier duty even though he had no experience as a cashier, and mishandled money, giving customers too much change. (AR 59-60.)

         Mr. Maskell also testified to transportation difficulties. He stated that he does not have a driver's license, occasionally gets rides through the Howard Center, and occasionally rides the bus. (AR 62-63.) But Mr. Maskell said that he had been "almost kicked off of the bus" a few times because he "scared a lot of people on the bus." (AR 63.) He said that he "feel[s] extremely uncomfortable just sitting on the bus" and "[w]hen there's large groups of people, " he thinks about "a plan on how to pretty much take out everyone on the bus." (Id.)

         He also experiences anxiety and panic attacks every day. (AR 63.) They last at least an hour, but he stated that they can last the whole day "until I can get up again in the morning and try and start fresh." (Id.) He attempts to alleviate the attacks by listening to loud music, playing his guitar, and trying to "get to a cold, dark area by myself." (AR 64.)

         With regard to household chores, Mr. Maskell testified that he does "basic little things" like sweeping and changing the cat litter, but that his girlfriend must remind him to do these things "[a]lmost constantly." (AR 65.) He says that chores stress him out because he cannot sleep and stays up late and is therefore "groggy" and "irritable all day." (Id.) He testified that he does not go grocery shopping and that his girlfriend "exclusively does that." (Id.) He says that he does not go shopping because there are "[t]oo many people, " that he has "broken things in the stores just because there's so many people, " and as a result has "actually been asked to leave stores." (AR 66.) When there are large groups of people, Mr. Maskell "feel[s] like everyone's staring at me and judging me and they know something about me and ... it makes me uneasy. ... I feel like they look at me and they know what happened to me growing up." (Id.) The ALJ asked Mr. Maskell about his function report, completed in May 2013, in which Mr. Maskell reported that he did go shopping in stores. (AR 70, 288.) Mr. Maskell explained that things had been getting worse and it had been months since he had gone shopping. (AR 70.) He also said that he would only go out shopping if there was a "dire need, " and he would run across the street to the gas station to buy it. (AR 73.)

         Mr. Maskell also testified to limited social interactions. He said that he never socialized and had no friends, and spent no time with anyone but his girlfriend, his daughter, and his mother. (AR 66.) He also avoids interactions with neighbors because "the only thing worse than talking to a stranger is talking to a neighbor because they're just going to be there and keep talking to you and asking for more things and it's just an added obligation that's just more stress and it's just not worth it." (AR 67.) When he is home, he testified, he would avoid answering the door when he knew it was a neighbor. (Id.)

         Mr. Maskell also testified about an incident at a doctor's office. On one visit, when he went with his girlfriend, the clerk said there was something wrong with his insurance and he became quite angry. (AR 68.) He yelled at the clerk, walked over to the elevator, and "repeatedly punched the elevator button" because "the waiting room was full and everyone was standing there staring at me because I was obviously being loud at the counter. Everyone was staring at me." (Id.) Mr. Maskell cut his hand and broke the elevator. (Id.) Other patients told him to "calm down" because there were children in the waiting room, but Mr. Maskell said that "I didn't care. I didn't care. I was like, I don't give a fuck, let's go right now, like right in the waiting room." (Id.)

         Mr. Maskell also testified to a history of substance abuse. He said that he had last had a drink on January 8, 2014, and had been "going on almost a year now without a single drop" of alcohol. (AR 71.) The ALJ then questioned Mr. Maskell about an incident in which, after drinking, Mr. Maskell became agitated while standing outside a store and attacked a parked car. (AR 72.) He was charged with criminal mischief for the incident and according to a doctor's note had a court date in May 2014. (Id.) The ALJ asked him whether the incident had been before January 2014, and Mr. Maskell responded that he didn't think so. (Id.) Mr. Maskell also said that he occasionally smoked marijuana, and had most recently done so a week earlier because it helped him sleep. (AR 71.)

         ALJ Decision

         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'r 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)).

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Mr. Maskell had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 9, 2011, his amended onset date. (AR 33.) At step two, he found that Mr. Maskell had the following severe impairments: attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety, a personality disorder, and poly substance abuse. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Mr. Maskell's impairments met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 35.)

         The ALJ determined that Mr. Maskell had an RFC to "perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, " but with specified non-exertional limitations. (AR 37.) Mr. Maskell was "limited to simple unskilled work in a low stress environment (defined as requiring little to no change in the work setting and little to no need for the use of judgment." (Id.) The ALJ noted that he could "maintain attention and concentration for two hour increments throughout an eight-hour workday and forty-hour workweek." (Id.) Mr. Maskell needed to "avoid social interaction with the general public" and could have "only limited social interaction with coworkers, " but could "sustain routine social interaction with supervisors." (Id.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that, with this RFC, Mr. Maskell could perform his past relevant work as a salvage laborer, both as he actually performed it and as the position is performed generally in the national economy. (AR 44.) Concluding that Mr. Maskell was not disabled, the ALJ did not reach step five. (Id.)

         The Appeals Council denied review on November 13, 2015. (AR 6.) Mr. Maskell obtained an extension to March 24, 2016 to file a civil action seeking court review. (AR 1.) This case was filed on March 4, 2016. (Doc. 1.)

         Standard ...

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