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Amy P. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

May 7, 2018

Amy P., Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 10, 11, 20)


         Plaintiff Amy P. 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 Plaintiff's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Doc. 10), Plaintiff's motion to remand the Commissioner's decision under sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Doc. 11), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the decision and deny remand under sentence six (Doc. 20). For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's sentence four motion (Doc. 10) is GRANTED; the Commissioner's motion (Doc. 20) is DENIED; and the matter is REMANDED for further proceedings and a new decision. Given these rulings, Plaintiff's sentence six motion (Doc. 11) is DENIED as moot.


         Plaintiff was 42 years old on her alleged disability onset date of April 2, 2010. She has an associate's degree in nursing and worked as a registered nurse for approximately ten years, holding nursing jobs in the settings of a clinic, a visiting nurse service, and a nursing home. Before becoming a nurse, Plaintiff worked in retail fabric stores. She is divorced, and has seven children ranging in age from approximately 15 to 30. She lost custody of her children shortly after she and her ex-husband separated in 2010, and has had only limited visitation with them since the divorce.

         Plaintiff grew up in Massachusetts with her parents, two brothers, and two step-siblings. She had a traumatic childhood, mostly the result of her parents both having mental health and substance abuse problems. She was sexually assaulted by her father from around the ages of 3 through 11, and also sexually assaulted by one of her brothers when she was 13. Plaintiff married when she was in her early twenties and had seven children with her ex-husband. In 2010, she and her ex-husband separated due to his emotional and physical abuse of her. Their divorce followed, with Plaintiff losing primary custody of the children. In March 2011, Plaintiff moved to Tunbridge, Vermont with her boyfriend. As of January 2017, the couple was engaged to be married.

         Since childhood, Plaintiff has suffered from depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She has also, at times, carried diagnoses of bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and personality disorder. At age 18, Plaintiff first entered psychotherapy for depression and anxiety. She first entered a center for detoxification of drugs and alcohol at age 19. And she was first treated with antidepressant medication at age 24. Plaintiff has had several hospital admissions--including in July 2009, November 2010, and September 2011--due to depression and/or alcohol abuse, and has attempted suicide (by cutting and overdosing) multiple times. In October 2013, after a charge of domestic assault, the Vermont Department of Corrections, Probation and Parole, mandated that Plaintiff attend a substance abuse program. She thus attended outpatient substance abuse treatment at the Clara Martin Center until around January 2015. Two years later, at the January 2017 administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified that she drinks one or two beers once or twice each week (AR 1439), and smokes about half a pack of cigarettes each day (AR 1446).

         In addition to her mental impairments, Plaintiff also suffers from gastrointestinal problems and asthma, among other physical ailments. As of January 2017, her gastrointestinal symptoms included feeling nauseous constantly, vomiting about five times a day, and having chronic diarrhea. (AR 1442-43.)

         In July 2012, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI. In her disability application, she alleged that she has been unable to work since April 2, 2010 due to depression, anxiety, PTSD, an undiagnosed cardiac or neurological condition, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). (AR 328.) Plaintiff testified at the January 2017 hearing that, as a result of these impairments, she does nothing all day, other than sitting at the kitchen table looking out the window and checking Facebook every four to six weeks. (AR 1444-45.) She further testified that she does not tend to her own personal hygiene, has no interests or hobbies, very rarely goes outside, and does not see any friends. (Id.) She stated that she misses a lot of medical appointments due to her impairments. (AR 1444.)

         Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. On March 17, 2014, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Thomas Merrill conducted a hearing on the disability application. (AR 37-62.) Plaintiff appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. On May 5, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act from her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 16-28.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. On August 24, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Complaint with this Court, and the matter was voluntarily remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings and a new decision.

         On remand, the Appeals Council consolidated Plaintiff's July 2012 applications with a subsequent SSI application that was filed in December 2015, and returned the case to the ALJ for additional development of the record and a new decision. (AR 1491-93.) On January 11, 2017, a second administrative hearing was held before ALJ Merrill. (AR 1434-58.) Plaintiff again appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel. A VE also testified, along with Plaintiff's fiancé. On March 29, 2017, the ALJ issued a second decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act from her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 1407-24.) Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this action on June 6, 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, ALJ Merrill first determined that, although Plaintiff had worked for short periods since her alleged disability onset date of April 2, 2010, she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during that period. (AR 1410.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder, a personality disorder, and alcohol abuse disorder. (Id.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's cardiac or neurological condition, IBS, shoulder issues, asthma, seizure activity, hypertension, diabetes, and gastroesophageal reflux disease, were nonsevere. (AR 1410-11.) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 1412-16.)

         Next, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform “a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she can understand, remember[, ] and carry out 1-4[-]step instructions for 2-hour periods throughout an 8-hour day and a 40-hour week.” (AR 1416.) Given this RFC, the ALJ found that, although Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a registered nurse (AR 1422-23), there were other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including the representative occupations of receptionist, recreation attendant, and housecleaner (AR 1423). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from the alleged disability onset date of April 2, 2010 through the date of the decision. (AR 1424.)

         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. ...

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