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Davis v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

February 26, 2018

Christopher J. Davis, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 13, 16)

          John M. Conroy United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Christopher J. Davis 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 applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Pending before the Court are Davis's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 13), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 16). For the reasons stated below, Davis's motion is DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.

         Factual Background

         Davis was 29 years old on his alleged disability onset date of June 30, 2003. He graduated from high school and worked in the following jobs, each for only a short period of time: a cashier at a convenience store, a short order cook, a housekeeper/ janitor, and a seasonal worker at a ski resort. He is married and has two daughters, approximately ages nine and sixteen, who he helped care for during the relevant period. He also has an older daughter who he gave up for adoption when she was a young child.

         Davis had a difficult childhood marked by abuse, limited social relationships, lack of stability, and behavioral problems. (AR 305, 862, 1494-95.) When he was a young child, Davis was physically and sexually abused by his parents. He and his sister were removed from the family home when Davis was six years old, and he spent the rest of his childhood in state custody. Though his sister was adopted, Davis had multiple placements in foster homes and youth centers, and several admissions to mental health and addiction hospitals primarily due to his conduct-related issues. Davis also spent time in prison for committing petty theft as a child and check forgery as an adult; and he served a long period of house arrest, ending in November 2009, due to a charge of occupied burglary. (See AR 224, 301, 305, 554, 729, 1623, 1625, 1627-33.)

         In 2006, Davis married his current wife, Mandy Davis, who has testified at multiple administrative hearings in support of Davis's disability application. A November 2006 medical report states that, on a typical day during the alleged disability period, Davis helped prepare his daughter for school, used the computer, cooked, attended to his personal care, and did chores. (AR 302.) A psychological report from November 2007 indicates that Davis was “an at-home father” and “the primary caregiver for his two children[, ] as his wife [was] work[ing] full time outside of the home.” (AR 307.) In February 2007, Davis reported that he spent five to six hours a day in front of a computer (AR 346); and in April 2007, he reported spending ten to twelve hours a day engaged in that activity (AR 337). In June 2007, Davis was “working as a cook at a local restaurant, which [required] him to stand [for] [eight] to [ten] hours per day.” (AR 334.) By July 2008, however, Davis stated in a Function Report that he did not leave the house other than for medical appointments because he was on house arrest; the heat bothered him; and he found it hard to breath. (AR 189.) He stated that, on a typical day, he drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, cleaned the house, helped his wife with their kids, and “buil[t]/tinker[ed]/play[ed] on computers.” (AR 186.) He stated that sometimes he did nothing all day except “escape in my computer work” (id.), and that he was “agitated all the time” and did not get along with people (AR 191).

         In December 2009, Davis testified that he was the primary caretaker of his children and that Mandy worked outside the home doing graphic design for a newspaper. (AR 1210.) In December 2011, Mandy testified that Davis watched their daughters (ages two and nine at the time) only on Sunday and Monday evenings while Mandy worked (AR 2499); and he watched television and slept most of the day (AR 2497; see AR 2672, 2685 (Davis and Mandy testifying in September 2013 that Davis watched television for much of the day)). Mandy further testified that, although prior to December 2011, Davis cared for their girls more frequently and did housework while she was at work, his depression had worsened so that he did not do much of that anymore. (AR 2500-01.)

         In September 2013, Mandy testified that the family had received state subsidized childcare from 2008 through April 2013 because she was working and Davis “had mood instability and could not care for the kids full[]time.” (AR 2678.) Mandy further testified that Davis had cared for their younger daughter in 2009, but that lasted only “a couple weeks” because “he was clearly not able to and [they therefore] found daycare.” (Id.) Mandy explained that Davis was “fine” in emergencies but he did not interact with their children; he was “hostile” with their older daughter; and he had “violent thoughts towards” their younger daughter. (Id.) In August 2016, Mandy testified that Davis could not care for their children due to his anxiety and anger outbursts. (AR 2393.) She explained that he has “a very hard time trying to remain unemotional and unreactive when it comes to parenting.” (Id.) Nonetheless, Mandy stated that Davis stayed home with the children three days a week while she worked, although they were older and did not require much supervision anymore. (AR 2394.) During a typical day, Mandy stated that Davis did some household chores like the dishes and laundry, fed their pets, and tinkered on electronics; on some days, however, she said he did nothing all day. (AR 2397.) Mandy also noted that sometimes Davis went to the thrift shop and “talk[ed] to the old ladies down there” while looking for free electronics. (AR 2399.)

         Overall, the record reflects that Davis has anti-social tendencies. (See, e.g., AR 931.) He appears to have close relationships with only his wife and his sister; and he leaves the house only occasionally (he does not have a driver's license). He has had longstanding difficulties with interpersonal interactions and anger management; and he suffers from mood disorders, depression, anxiety, and impulse control. (AR 862, 1495.) He also suffers from many physical impairments, including a pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis, degenerative disc disease, ulnar nerve neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), and obesity. Despite these impairments, in August 2016, Davis testified that he regularly attends church (AR 2403), “tinker[s]” on and fixes electronics for people (AR 2405), and does chores around the house (id.). He explained that he stopped working because his most recent jobs were seasonal (AR 2406), because his employer “didn't want to keep [him] on” (id.), or because of his pulmonary embolism (AR 2407). Additionally, he explained that he “[d]oesn't get along with . . . boss[es] telling [him] what to do.” (Id.) He further testified that he was thinking about going back to vocational rehabilitation but was deterred because “they won't help me until I get help myself.” (AR 2408.)

         Procedural Background

         On October 18, 2007, Davis filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging that, starting on June 30, 2003, he has been unable to work due to emotional disorders and attention deficit disorder. (AR 116.) He explained that he has difficulty focusing at work, irritability, problems with relationships and getting along with others, depression, impulsivity, and paranoia. (Id.) Davis's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was conducted on December 14, 2009 by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Ruth Kleinfeld. (AR 1273-88.) On April 29, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Davis was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from his alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 4-21.) Davis timely appealed that decision to the district court, and the parties stipulated to a reversal and remand for a new hearing and decision. On April 20, 2011, the Appeals Council remanded the case with instructions. (AR 1160-66.)

         On December 7, 2011, a second administrative hearing was held before ALJ Kleinfeld (AR 2471-2518), who issued a second unfavorable decision on January 27, 2012 (AR 1179-1202). Davis again appealed, and on June 13, 2012, the Appeals Council vacated and remanded the ALJ's decision with instructions. (AR 1171-75.)

         On September 30, 2013, a third administrative hearing was held, this time before ALJ Thomas Merrill. (AR 2666-94.) On December 13, 2013, ALJ Merrill issued a third unfavorable decision. (AR 947-74.) Davis timely appealed the decision to the district court, ultimately resulting in a June 3, 2015 Order from the Appeals Council remanding the case, yet again, with instructions. (AR 2463-67.)

         On August 23, 2016 and October 12, 2016, respectively, fourth and fifth hearings were held on Davis's claim, this time before ALJ Dory Sutker. (AR 2379- 2410, 2412-61.) Medical expert psychiatrist Dr. Nathan Strahl testified by telephone at the October 2016 hearing. (AR 2423-50.) On January 3, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Davis had not been disabled from his alleged disability onset date of June 30, 2003 through the date of the decision. (AR 2346-63.) Thereafter, the Decision Review Board did not complete its review of the claim during the time allowed, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Davis filed the Complaint in this action on March 31, 2017. (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 in her January 3, 2017 decision, ALJ Sutker first determined that Davis had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date of June 30, 2003. (AR 2349.) At step two, the ALJ found that Davis had the following severe impairments: recurrent idiopathic pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis, degenerative disc disease of the spine, ulnar nerve neuropathy (left), CTS, obesity, dysthymic disorder, anxiety disorder, a personality disorder, and a history of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. (Id.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Davis's pilonidal cyst, esophageal reflux, and sleep apnea were non-severe impairments. (AR 2351.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Davis's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 2351-56.)

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

[Davis] cannot climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds[, ] and he is limited to occasional climbing of stairs/ramps, kneeling, crouching, crawling[, ] and stooping. He needs to avoid exposure to unprotected heights and to dangerous machinery. He can perform uncomplicated tasks that typically can be learned in 30 days or less. He can maintain concentration, persistence[, ] and pace for such tasks for 2-hour blocks throughout an 8hour workday with regular scheduled breaks and lunch. He is limited to incidental contact with the general public (dealing with the public is not part of his job duties). He needs an environment where tasks are performed in a solitary manner (no tandem or team tasks), but he is able to collaborate with co[]workers and supervisors on routine matters.

(AR 2356.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that Davis was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (AR 2361.) Finally, based on testimony from vocational expert Dr. Peter Manzi, the ALJ determined that Davis could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including the representative occupations of assembler of hospital products, assembler of small products, and lens matcher. (AR 2362.) The ALJ further found that, even if Davis were limited to only frequent handling and fingering, he could perform work as an assembler of hospital products, a lens matcher, or a weld inspector. (Id.) The ...

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