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Sanville v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

September 20, 2017

Wanda Sanville, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 17, 24)

          John M. Conroy United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Wanda Sanville 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 Sanville's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 17), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 24). For the reasons stated below, Sanville's motion (Doc. 17) is granted in part and denied in part; the Commissioner's motion (Doc. 24) is granted in part and denied in part; and the matter is REMANDED for further proceedings and a new decision.


         Sanville was 35 years old on her alleged disability onset date of December 31, 2004. She attended school through the eighth grade. (AR 534.) She had learning problems in school and was in special education classes. (Id.) She has worked as a cook/server at a fast food restaurant, a cashier/stockperson at a convenience store, and a machine operator at a laundromat. (Id.; AR 224-25, 716.)

         Sanville is divorced and has no children. (AR 534.) She was homeless for several years prior to 2010, but in July 2010, she was living with her fiancé in an apartment in Bradford, Vermont. (Id.) Neither Sanville nor her fiancé was working at the time; they relied on SSI, worker's compensation benefits, and food stamps to survive. (Id.) Sanville does not drive and has a history of two arrests for DWI. (AR 533-34.) Since she was in her twenties, Sanville has had problems with alcohol abuse; and she has suffered withdrawal symptoms including seizures and delirium tremens, for which she was hospitalized in 2008. (AR 534.) At the May 2014 administrative hearing, however, Sanville testified that she had stopped drinking four years earlier. (AR 725.)

         Sanville had a stroke in 2011, and since then she has suffered from dizziness, headaches, and memory problems. At the administrative hearing, Sanville testified that the stroke resulted in her experiencing: numbness on the left side of her body, particularly her left arm and leg, causing her to fall; difficulty reaching in all directions with her left arm; occasional inability to feel/pick up small objects with her left arm; daily migraine headaches; and regular dizzy spells lasting ten to twenty minutes at a time. (AR 717-23.) Sanville also suffers from anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression. (AR 616.)

         In March 2013, Sanville's daily activities consisted of remodeling her home, taking care of her many animals, painting, and doing word problems. (AR 615.) She reported having no physical limitations in her ability to engage in physical care activities such as dressing and grooming; and she was able to cook, shop, do errands, and attend appointments. (Id.) She did not drive because she did not have a license. (Id.) She reported that she was comfortable with face-to-face contact with people but sometimes experienced anxiety “out of the blue.” (AR 616.) More recently, Sanville testified that on a typical day, she cares for her animals, does household chores and cooks meals with her husband's help, and grocery shops with her husband. (AR 726.)

         On October 12, 2012, Sanville filed DIB and SSI applications alleging disability as of December 31, 2004, due to the following physical and mental health issues: symptoms of her stroke including seizures, dizziness, and headaches; a left shoulder impairment; PTSD; anxiety; and depression. (AR 82-119, 133.) About two weeks later, the DIB application was denied on the basis of res judicata. (AR 39-40.) The SSI application was denied initially in March 2013 and on reconsideration in December 2013. (AR 41-55.) An administrative hearing was held in May 2014 (AR 711-32); and on July 25, 2014, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) James D'Alessandro denied Sanville's request to reopen the prior DIB claim and issued an unfavorable decision on Sanville's SSI claim (AR 19-28). On July 22, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Sanville's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 9-12.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Sanville filed the Complaint in this action on September 20, 2016. (Doc. 4.)

         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]”).

         Before beginning the sequential analysis, ALJ D'Alessandro noted that Sanville's DIB claim was denied on the basis of res judicata and declined to reopen the claim, thereby limiting the remainder of his decision to Sanville's SSI claim. (AR 19-20.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Sanville had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 12, 2012, the date of her SSI application. (AR 22.) At step two, the ALJ found that Sanville had the following severe impairments: “status post cerebral vascular accident December 2010, a history of a fracture of the left shoulder in 2000, a history of alcohol abuse, anxiety[, ] and depression.” (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Sanville's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 23-25.)

         Next, the ALJ determined that Sanville had the RFC to perform “sedentary work, ” as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a), except that she was “limited to only occasional overhead reaching with the left non-dominant upper extremity”; she needed “to avoid exposure to heights and to dangerous machinery”; and she was “limited to simple, repetitive[, ] unskilled tasks.” (AR 25.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Sanville was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (AR 27.) Finally, the ALJ applied the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (“the Guidelines”) at step five and determined that there were other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Sanville could perform. (AR 28.) The ALJ concluded that Sanville had not been under a disability since the date her application was filed on October 12, 2012. (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 factfinder.”). “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. In its deliberations, the court should bear in mind 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).


         Sanville claims the ALJ made three errors: (1) denying Sanville's DIB claim on res judicata grounds and declining to reopen the claim; (2) failing to include documented physical and mental limitations in his RFC determination; and (3) applying the Guidelines at step five, rather than obtaining testimony from a VE regarding jobs existing in the economy that Sanville could perform despite her nonexertional limitations. In response, the Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and complies with the applicable legal standards. For the reasons explained below, the Court finds in favor of the Commissioner on the first issue and in favor of Sanville on the second and third issues. Accordingly, the Court remands for further proceedings and a new decision.

         I. There Was No Error in Applying the Doctrine of Administrative Res Judicata to Deny the Prior DIB Claim, and the ALJ Did ...

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