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Barca v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

August 8, 2017

Michael Barca, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 14, 21)


         Plaintiff Michael Barca 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 (Commissioner) denying his February 2013 applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Pending before the Court are Barca's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 14), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 21). For the reasons stated below, the Court DENIES Barca's motion, and GRANTS the Commissioner's motion.


         In January 2014, this Court issued an order denying a prior DIB application of Barca's.[1] See Barca v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., Civil Action No. 2:13-CV-68, 2014 WL 257858, at *1 (D. Vt. Jan. 23, 2014). Therein, the Court summarized the facts as follows

After graduating from high school, [Barca] served in the Marines for approximately four years. Thereafter, he was an emergency medical technician for approximately eight years. Since 1996, he has held many jobs, including a road flagger, a security officer, a sales associate, a cook, a teacher's aide, a construction worker, and a taxi driver. He claims he has been unable to hold most of these jobs for more than a few weeks.
As a child, Barca was physically abused by his father. He was married in 1994, and he and his wife had three children and adopted a fourth. The couple had problems with their eldest son, and Barca told one of his medical providers that when this son was 14, he sexually molested the couple's then four-year-old son. In July 2008, Barca was fired from his job as a security officer, which he had held for almost five years, due to his theft from a client. In January 2009, Barca was charged with arson of the family residence. Around the same time, Barca's marriage ended in divorce, largely due to Barca's economic and vocational instability and his anger issues. In 2011, feeling despondent from his divorce and estrangement from his children, Barca attempted suicide by overdosing on his medications. At that time, he was living with his brother-in-law and his family, including nine children. In June 2012, Barca was living alone in an apartment subsidized by a Veteran's Affairs . . . housing program. He saw his children infrequently but was well connected with a local church and close with his sisters.
Despite having gastric bypass surgery in 1998, Barca is morbidly obese. He suffers from depression, posttraumatic stress syndrome . . ., and cellulitis. He has nightmares, which prevent him from sleeping through the night. His cellulitis causes swelling in his legs if he sits or stands for extended periods, and his psychological problems result in problems concentrating and handling stress.

Id. at *1 (citations omitted). In a June 2011 Intake Evaluation, it was noted that Barca has a “no[-]contact order” that prevents him from being able to spend time with his children (AR 633), and that he reported approximately 30 jobs in the prior few years, each of which ended with him quitting or being fired, and approximately 50 jobs since Barca left the Marines in 1981 (AR 633-34).

         Barca was 54 years old on his amended alleged disability onset date of January 19, 2013. In February 2013, he filed the DIB and SSI applications currently under review, alleging that he has been unable to work due to “[m]anic depression acute, ” posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), “extreme suicidal anxiety, ” lymphedema, [2] cellulitis, [3] and high blood pressure. (AR 494.) Barca's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he timely requested an administrative hearing. On December 11, 2014, a hearing was conducted by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Matthew Levin. (AR 38-63.) Barca appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. (AR 55-62.) Barca testified that, as a result of his lower extremity condition (cellulitis, lymphedema, a combination of the two, or something else), he is unable to stand or sit for lengthy periods (more than 15-20 minutes) or his legs will begin to swell, becoming very painful. (AR 49-50, 503.) In a Function Report, Barca explained that, when his legs swell, he suffers “excruciating” pain, making it difficult to walk. (AR 531.) Barca further testified that he experiences swelling in his legs on a daily basis and has to elevate them for eight hours before the swelling goes down. (AR 49.) Barca explained that, due to his lower extremity pain and swelling, he has difficulty performing activities of daily living including showering, dressing, and completing household chores. (AR 52-53.) His pain also results in him being able to sleep for only about three to four hours each night. (AR 532.)

         Despite his extensive testimony and reporting about his lower extremity condition, Barca stated at the administrative hearing that, of all his impairments, his “anxiety disorder” is the one that most prevents him from working. (AR 47.) Barca testified that, due to his anxiety and “severe depression, ” he cannot work with people and he feels suicidal three or four times each month. (AR 47-48.) In a Function Report, Barca further stated that his PTSD limits his ability to concentrate and retain even simple information. (AR 531.)

         On February 4, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Barca was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from his amended alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 14-28.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Barca's request for review (AR 1-6), rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Barca filed the Complaint in this case on July 6, 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 Levin first determined that, although Barca had engaged in some work activity after the amended alleged disability onset date, he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA). (AR 17.) At step two, the ALJ found that Barca had the following severe impairments: obesity, lymphedema/cellulitis (lower extremities), depression, an anxiety-related disorder, and personality disorder traits. (Id.) Conversely, the ALJ found that the following impairments were not severe, due to a lack of evidence: hearing and vision loss, hypertension, and loss of a portion of right index finger. (AR 18.) The ALJ noted, however, that he considered these impairments in assessing Barca's RFC. (AR 19.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Barca's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 19-21.)

         Next, the ALJ determined that Barca had the RFC to perform “light work, ” as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except as follows:

[Barca] must be able to sit and elevate his legs for 3-5 minutes an hour. He is able to perform simple, unskilled work in a low[-]stress environment, which is defined as requiring little to no change in the work setting and little to no need for the use of judgment. He is able to maintain attention and concentration for two-hour increments throughout the course of an 8-hour workday and to have brief and superficial social interaction with the general public and co[]workers and routine collaboration with supervisors.

(AR 21.) Given this RFC, and relying on the VE's testimony from the administrative hearing, the ALJ found that Barca was capable of performing his past relevant work as a “flagger.” (AR 27.) The ALJ concluded that Barca had not been under a disability from his amended alleged disability onset date of January 19, 2013, through the date of the decision. (Id.)

         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 fact[-]finder.”). “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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