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Servidas v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

April 6, 2018

James S. Servidas, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 16, 17)

          John M. Conroy United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff James Servidas 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 Servidas's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 16), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 17). For the reasons stated below, Servidas's motion is GRANTED, the Commissioner's motion is DENIED, and the matter is REMANDED for further proceedings and a new decision.


         Servidas was 48 years old on his amended alleged disability onset date of August 1, 2014. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade but later earned his eighth grade diploma and a GED. From 1997 through 2014, Servidas held approximately five unskilled manual labor jobs. His most recent job was as a lumber stacker at Britton Lumber from 2009 until he was terminated in August 2014. Servidas is divorced, and has four children. On the date of the administrative hearing, he was living in the basement of his brother and sister-in-law's house.

         Servidas grew up in a troubled home with his parents and nine siblings. He was sexually molested by an older brother for approximately two years starting when Servidas was eight years old. He had academic and disciplinary problems in school. As an adult, Servidas was arrested four times. In 1999, he pled no contest to a charge of lewd and lascivious conduct with his 15-year-old stepdaughter, requiring him to register as a sex offender. His parental rights were terminated soon thereafter, and his wife left him, cutting off contact with his children until recently, when his youngest daughter reinitiated contact. Around the time of the lewd and lascivious conduct arrest, Servidas attempted suicide, resulting in hospitalization.

         Servidas suffers from several physical impairments, including migraine headaches, traumatic osteoarthritis of the ankle, and obesity. He testified at the administrative hearing that “everything aches, ” and that he is “constantly uncomfortable” and “always in pain, ” largely due to his age and years of doing manual labor jobs. (AR 68.) Servidas also suffers from multiple mental health impairments, including chronic depression, anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and panic disorder. The record demonstrates that Servidas's most significant impairments are his depression and his difficulty getting along with people. He testified that he does not want to get up in the morning; he stays in his room all day, listening to the television and doing nothing; he does not go out and socialize; and he does not see anyone regularly other than his brother and his girlfriend with whom he lives. (AR 65-66.)

         Servidas protectively applied for DIB on August 22, 2014 and for SSI on October 20, 2014. (AR 188, 190.) In his disability application, Servidas alleged that, starting on August 1, 2014, [1] he has been unable to work due to arthritis in his joints and hands, depression, social anxiety, PTSD, sleep apnea, memory problems, and a “quick temper.” (AR 217.) Servidas's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was conducted on August 11, 2016 by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Dory Sutker. (AR 30-84.) Servidas appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing.

         On October 5, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Servidas 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 13-25.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Servidas's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-6.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Servidas filed the Complaint in this action on April 21, 2017. (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 Sutker first determined that Servidas had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his amended alleged disability onset date of August 1, 2014. (AR 15.) At step two, the ALJ found that Servidas had the following severe impairments: anxiety disorder variously diagnosed as PTSD, panic disorder and anxiety disorder unspecified, affective disorder variously diagnosed as bipolar disorder and depressive disorder unspecified, obesity, migraine headaches, and traumatic osteoarthritis of the ankle. (Id.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Servidas's left hip condition was non-severe. (AR 16.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Servidas's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 16-18.)

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

[Servidas] can never climb ladders, ropes[, ] and scaffolds; [can] occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch[, ] and crawl; [can] occasionally climb ramps and stairs; [can have] no exposure to temperature extremes (either cold or hot); must avoid environments with uneven, slippery[, ] or wet surfaces; requires an environment with no more than a moderate noise level; can perform uncomplicated tasks (defined as tasks that can typically be learned in thirty days or less); . . . concentration, persistence[, ] and pace would be somewhat variable, but productivity would never be more than 10% below the norm; limited to incidental contact with the general public (i.e., dealing with the general public would not be part of [his] job duties, but [he] could tolerate passing someone in the hall, etc.); would need an environment where tasks ...

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