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Laviolette v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

September 27, 2017

Thomas Laviolette, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 8, 11)

          John M. Conroy, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Thomas Laviolette 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 his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). Pending before the Court are Laviolette's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 8), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 11). For the reasons stated below, Laviolette's motion is DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.


         Laviolette was 42 years old on his alleged disability onset date of June 8, 2012.[1]He completed high school and has work experience as a carpenter, a home health aide, a machinist, and a small business owner/oil burner technician. He is married and lives with his wife and grown sons.

         In September 2006, Laviolette was injured at work. He has not worked full time ever since, mostly due to neck pain and decreased range of motion in his neck, but also because of pain in his shoulders, arm, and back; and pain radiating down his leg. To address his pain, Laviolette has undergone physical therapy, chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, epidural injections, nerve blocks, and radiofrequency ablation therapy, none of which has resulted in long-term relief. He has also been prescribed many different medications, including narcotics. In August 2012, after a cervical MRI showed degenerative changes at ¶ 6-7 in the cervical spine, a herniated disc, and foraminal stenosis; Laviolette underwent C6-7 anterior cervical discectomy and fusion surgery (neck surgery). (AR 388, 461-63.) The surgery reduced his right arm pain, at least temporarily, but his neck pain has continued. (AR 46-47.)

         At the April 2016 administrative hearing, Laviolette testified that he is “on a ton of medication” (AR 48)--about 20 different kinds (AR 58)--and that those medications “help[] to a degree” (AR 48), but have the side effects of loss of balance, dizziness, and drowsiness (AR 58-59). (See also, regarding Laviolette's prescription drug use, AR 59, 410-11, 422-23, 434, 445, 476-80, 672, 745-50, 920, 1037, 1050-52.) Laviolette further testified that any activity or movement makes his pain severe (AR 49, 53), and that it is “not uncommon” for him to be in bed for three days at a time due to pain (AR 56). Laviolette's primary care physician, Dr. Melisa Gibson, stated in treatment notes from during and after the alleged disability period that she would need to taper Laviolette's medications at some point (see, e.g., AR 416, 694, 1052), but Laviolette was never ready (see, e.g., AR 434, 437, 1050). In an October 2015 treatment note, Dr. Gibson indicated that she was tapering Laviolette's medications and that she had a “[l]ong and frank” discussion with Laviolette to advise him that, after almost nine years of treatment with pain medications and other modalities, “there is no indication to continue pain medication at such high doses when they have neither relieved pain [n]or restored function.” (AR 1052.)

         On July 16, 2014, Laviolette filed the pending DIB application, alleging that, starting in June 2012, he has been unable to work due to cervicalgia (neck pain), low back pain, chronic pain, depression, gastroesophageal reflux disease, hyperlipidemia, high blood pressure, insomnia, heart issues, and limited range of motion. (AR 116-18, 133, 261.) The application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and Laviolette timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was conducted on April 7, 2016 by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Matthew Levin. (AR 40-70.) Laviolette appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. On May 12, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Laviolette was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from his alleged disability onset date of June 8, 2012 through his date last insured of December 31, 2012. (AR 34.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Laviolette's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-5.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Laviolette filed the Complaint in this action on November 2, 2016. (Doc. 1.)

         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 Laviolette had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date of June 8, 2012. (AR 25.) At step two, the ALJ found that Laviolette had the severe impairment of degenerative disc disease of the spine with radiculopathy. (Id.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Laviolette's hypertension, hyperlipidemia, gastroesophageal reflux disease, coronary artery disease, adjustment disorder, depression, and anxiety disorder were nonsevere, given that none of these impairments created more than minimal limitations in Laviolette's ability to perform basic work tasks or mental work activities. (AR 25-27.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Laviolette's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 27-28.)

         Next, the ALJ determined that Laviolette had the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the following particular limitations:

[Laviolette] can frequently climb stairs but should avoid all ladders, ropes[, ] and scaffolds. He is unlimited for balancing. [He] can frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, or use ramps. He can frequently perform overhead reaching [and] front and lateral reaching activities, and can frequently handle.

(AR 28.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Laviolette was unable to perform his past relevant work as a carpenter, a home health aide, a machine operator, and a small business owner/oil burner technician. (AR 32.) Finally, based on testimony from the VE, the ALJ determined that Laviolette could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including the “light” jobs of price marker, furniture rental consultant, and laundry classifier (AR 33); and the “sedentary” jobs of telephone information clerk, final assembler, and call-out operator (AR 34). The ALJ concluded ...

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