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Shappy v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Vermont

August 30, 2017

JAMES SHAPPY, III, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 6, 15)

          Geoffrey W. Crawford, Judge United States District Court.

         Plaintiff James Joseph Shappy, III brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), requesting reversal of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). Pending before the court is Mr. Shappy's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 6) and the Commissioner's motion to affirm (Doc. 15). For the reasons stated below, the court GRANTS Mr. Shappy's motion to reverse and DENIES the Commissioner's motion to affirm.

         Background

         Mr. Shappy, born in 1967, applied for DIB benefits on April 2, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of March 14, 2013. (AR 21, 45, 201.) The claim was denied initially on July 10, 2014, and on reconsideration on September 22, 2014. (AR 21, 154, 159.)

         Mr. Shappy testified at a hearing before an ALJ on June 16, 2015. (AR 21, 42.) Mr. Shappy attended school through tenth grade and later obtained a GED. (AR 46.)

         Mr. Shappy testified that his disability began in March 2013, when he took a significant electric shock when he was changing a motor switch in a large chilling system. (AR 47.) He was standing on a plastic bucket, and fell, hitting his head and injuring his back. (AR 47.) He was shocked again a few days later when he had gone back to work. (AR 58.) The second shock was less severe. (AR 58.) He damaged discs in both his neck and his back, and later had to have spinal fusion surgery. (AR 47.)

         Mr. Shappy's issues with his back and neck have never fully resolved. (AR 48, 50.) He stated that he continues to have back pain which is "off the charts, " and that he has pain in his neck and down his left arm and into his left hand. (AR 50.) He has to continuously alternate positions throughout the day, and can sit for only about 10 or 15 minutes at a time. (AR 52.) He said that his pain "doesn't go away" and that "[t]here's really nothing that alleviates it." (AR 52.)

         Mr. Shappy testified that his neck issues have also caused "issues in my left arm with numbness and motor skills and my left hand." (AR 48.) He also said that since he had begun to use a walker, he had developed carpal tunnel in his left hand from "[p]icking myself up from a sitting position." (AR 48.) His carpal tunnel syndrome has made his penmanship less legible and made it hard to pick things up off the ground and to drive, because it causes numbness in his arm. (AR 50.) He testified that he could drive, but "over a 20, 25 mile ride, ... I need to basically stop and stretch." (AR 50.)

         Mr. Shappy also said that he suffered from polyneuropathy in his feet. (AR 48.) Since his back surgery, he has had numbness in his feet that has "progressively gotten worse" and that is constant. (AR 48, 50.) Electrodiagnostic studies have found nerve damage in his feet. (AR 48.) He has balance issues and "issues standing for any period of time, " so he prefers to keep his walker close by. (AR 48.) While he does occasionally walk without it, it is typically with either the assistance of his girlfriend or by using a wall for support. (AR 48.) If he spends too much time on his feet, they will swell, and he has to spend a few days in bed to get the swelling down "in order to be functional again." (AR 53.) He estimated that he could spend 15 minutes of every hour or two hours on his feet. (AR 54.) He spends a lot of time in bed during the day and he says that lying down is helpful, especially with the neuropathy in his feet. (AR 53.)

         Mr. Shappy testified that the walker was issued to him right after his spine surgery. (AR 49.) He said that, while he is embarrassed to use the walker because it makes him "feel like an invalid, " he feels he is danger of falling without his walker. (AR 54.)

         Mr. Shappy also testified to a history of mental illness, specifically depression and substance abuse. (AR 50-51, 55.) His son passed away four years before the hearing, and he said that his brain replays the mistakes he has made in his life "over and over and over." (AR 57.) He attempted suicide in 2011. (AR 55, 392.) He also stated that, while he had previously struggled with drug abuse, including prescription pain pills, cocaine, and heroin, he stated that he had no such problems at the time of the hearing. (AR 50-51, 55.) He said that since his injury 2013, he had "stayed clean most of the time, " and especially since beginning pain management. (AR 56.) His mental illness makes it hard for him to concentrate, and says that he has both "lost interest in everything" and can "immediately get overwhelmed." (AR 57.)

         Mr. Shappy also testified that he had gained 50 pounds since the injury, and currently weighed 370 pounds. (AR 53.) He said that he gained weight because of a lack of exercise, depression, and emotional stress. (AR 53.)

         A vocational expert, Lynn Paulson, also testified at the hearing. (AR 60-66.) She answered questions posed by both the ALJ and Mr. Shappy's attorney regarding whether a hypothetical worker with specified limitations could perform either Mr. Shappy's past work or other work in the national economy. (AR 61-65.)

         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. 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. 2T0-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. Shappy had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 14, 2013, his alleged onset date. (AR 23.) At step two, he found that Mr. Shappy had the following severe impairments: obesity, degenerative disc disease, peripheral neuropathy, left carpal tunnel syndrome, sleep apnea, depression, anxiety, a personality disorder, and polysubstance abuse. (AR 24.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Mr. Shappy's impairments, either alone or in combination meet or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. (AR 24.)

         The ALJ determined that Mr. Shappy had an RFC to perform light work with certain limitations. (AR 26.) In an eight-hour work day, Mr. Shappy could stand or walk for two hours and sit for six hours, he could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, he could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, he could occasionally push and pull with his lower extremities, and he could occasionally reach overhead with his left upper extremity, but could frequently handle and grasp with it. (AR 26.) Mr. Shappy was further limited to simple, unskilled work in a low stress environment-"requiring little to no change in the work setting and little to no need for the use of judgment." (Id.) He could maintain attention and concentration for two-hour periods during the day, and, while he should avoid interaction with the general public, he could "sustain brief and superficial social interaction with coworkers and supervisors." (Id.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that, with this RFC, Mr. Shappy could not perform any past relevant work. (AR 33.) At step five, the ALJ concluded that sufficient jobs existed in the national economy that Mr. Shappy could perform, including "inspector/hand packer, " "merchandise marker, " and "touch-up screener." (AR 34.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Mr. Shappy was not disabled. (AR 35.)

         The Appeals Council denied review on February 25, 2016. (AR 1.) The complaint in this case was filed on April 19, 2016. (Doc. 3.)

         Standard ...


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