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Tanya L. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

June 5, 2018

Tanya L., Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 11, 12)


         Plaintiff Tanya L. 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 application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Pending before the Court are Plaintiff's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 11), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 12). For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's motion is DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.


         Plaintiff was 31 years old on her alleged disability onset date of November 23, 2013. She struggled in school and dropped out after the ninth grade. She has had many jobs over the years, including as a cashier and a cleaner, but each for only a very brief period. Her last job was at a Kmart in West Lebanon, New Hampshire in 2013. Plaintiff is divorced and has four children, approximately ages 10, 15, 17, and 18. As of January 2016, she was living in an apartment in Middlebury with her children and her boyfriend.

         Plaintiff has a long history of trauma beginning in early childhood and continuing into adulthood. As a child, she was physically abused by her parents (primarily her mother) and her brothers. She made a complaint to the State and was removed from the home and placed in foster care at the age of 12 or 13. She began receiving mental health treatment, and was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.

         Plaintiff was pregnant at the age of 16 by a man who was 31 years old. She moved to Florida and then to California with a different man, John, later returning to Vermont to live with her mother for about a month before she aged out of custody. Thereafter, she lived with John, who she married in May 2001 and with whom she had two more children. John physically and verbally abused Plaintiff and had substance abuse problems. The couple divorced in July 2009, with Plaintiff receiving custody of the children.

         In April 2010, Plaintiff was raped by an intruder in Winooski. Later that year, she moved to Ohio with a new boyfriend who also physically and verbally abused her. In September 2010, Plaintiff was involved in an automobile accident. She moved back to Vermont in October 2011, briefly staying with friends before moving into a motel in Middlebury with her children. At some point, Plaintiff met and became engaged to a man named Bruce, who appears to be (the record is unclear on this) the father of her fourth child. In 2012, six days before their wedding, Bruce was killed in a motorcycle accident. After his passing, Bruce's family evicted Plaintiff from his house, and Plaintiff lived in her car while her children moved in with her mother. Thereafter, Plaintiff met her current boyfriend, Justin; and she and her children moved into Justin's home in Royalton.

         Given the abuse she has suffered over the years, Plaintiff has psychological problems, including feeling fearful and helpless, and experiencing recurrent intrusive recollections and dreams of the abuse. She also feels detached and estranged from people, has difficulty concentrating, is afraid to go out alone, has low energy, and has feelings of worthlessness and guilt. In addition to her mental problems, Plaintiff suffers from neck pain, back pain, and numbness and tingling in her hands, legs, and feet.

         On a typical day during the alleged disability period, Plaintiff got her children ready for school in the morning, with Justin's help. (AR 57, 627.) Often, she then returned to bed until the children returned home after school. (Id.) Justin, who was unemployed, did most of the household chores including cooking and cleaning, with the help of Plaintiff's daughter. (AR 56, 627.)

         On March 5, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging that, starting on November 23, 2013, she has been unable to work due to ADHD, PTSD, anxiety, depression, back problems, and neck pain. (AR 119.) Plaintiff explained that she has held many jobs lasting only one or two weeks because she “‘do[es]n't feel like doing [the job]'” and she “‘sleep[s] all the time.'” (AR 390.) She has tried looking for jobs, but found that “‘nothing interested [her].'” (Id.) Plaintiff's SSI application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff timely requested an administrative hearing. The hearing was conducted on January 13, 2016 by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Joshua Menard. (AR 31-65.) Plaintiff appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert (VE) also testified. On February 12, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff had not been under a disability under the Social Security Act since the date her application was filed. (AR 17-25.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-3.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this action on July 24, 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 Menard first determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 5, 2014, the date of her application. (AR 19.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, depression, and anxiety. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR ...

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