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Reardon v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

August 30, 2018

Brenda R., Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 34, 35)

          John M. Conroy, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Brenda R. brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act, requesting review and remand of the third 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 (Doc. 34), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 35). For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's motion is DENIED, the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED, and the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff was 32 years old on her alleged disability onset date of February 28, 2007. She graduated from high school and has held a number of jobs, including as a housekeeper, a laundry sorter, a waitress, and a cashier. Her longest period of employment lasted approximately two years. Plaintiff has two sons but lost custody of them years ago due to her drug and alcohol abuse. She lives alone, has been homeless at times, and has had multiple residencies at inpatient drug treatment rehabilitation centers and sobriety houses.

         Plaintiff has a long history of polysubstance dependence, primarily cocaine and opiates; and she has been incarcerated several times for drug-related offenses. She began abusing alcohol and cannabis at around age 15, around the time when she was sexually abused by her stepfather. She was admitted to Valley Vista, an inpatient drug addiction treatment facility, from November 2004 through January 2005. She had a second stay there from February 2006 through April 2007. Medical notes from this period indicate that Plaintiff was maintaining her sobriety, interacting with her children and with a boyfriend, working three days a week, and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings five days a week. In June 2007, however, she was admitted to Rutland Regional Medical Center for treatment of septic shock after injecting Ritalin and cocaine while using a contaminated needle. By the end of July 2007, Plaintiff was feeling better, until she relapsed in September 2007 and was sent to the Dale Correctional Facility after violating the terms of her probation. Eventually, she was transferred to Valley Vista for her third detoxification admission, where she remained until January 2008. A few months later, in March, Plaintiff had another incarceration related to her drug use. She was readmitted to Valley Vista in April 2008 (her fourth and final inpatient stay there), where she resided until July 2008. She appears to have had an extended period of sobriety after that residence, but then tested positive for drugs in November 2009 and admitted to relapses in late 2011 and late 2012.

         Plaintiff's medical history includes three head injuries: one occurring in 1994 and the other two occurring in 2001, and all three involving motor vehicle accidents. She also suffers from depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and sleep problems.

         In December 2008, Plaintiff stated in a Function Report that, on a typical day, she did chores, went to the coffee shop, read, napped, attended medical and counseling appointments, watched television, occasionally went to the library, and sometimes spoke with her children on the telephone. (AR 173, 2091.) Plaintiff testified in May 2013 that her depression was “ruining [her] life” (AR 1679), that she showered only once a week or less, and that her Section 8 apartment was “a mess” because she had no energy to do even simple household chores (AR 1680). In October 2016, Plaintiff testified that she did not want to get out of bed due to her depression, and she often felt too exhausted to attend her counseling appointments. (AR 1811.)

         On August 4, 2008, Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and DIB, alleging disability as a result of depression and cognitive problems due to head trauma. She explained that she has “no motivation to do anything except get out of bed.” (AR 2073.) She originally alleged disability as of October 1, 1994, but later amended the alleged disability onset date to February 28, 2007. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she timely requested an administrative hearing. Her first hearing was held on May 7, 2010 by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Thomas Merrill. (AR 26-50.) On August 17, 2010, ALJ Merrill issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 7-19.) Thereafter, the Decision Review Board selected the ALJ's decision for review, but did not conduct its review during the time allowed. As a result, the decision became final, and Plaintiff sought judicial review. On April 23, 2012, this Court issued an Opinion and Order remanding Plaintiff's claim for further proceedings and a new decision due to the ALJ's failure to properly apply the treating physician rule. (AR 1018-30.) See Reardon v. Astrue, Civil Action No. 2:11-CV-11, 2012 WL 1410354, at *6 (D. Vt. Apr. 23, 2012).

         Pursuant to the remand order, on January 16, 2013 and May 6, 2013, respectively, ALJ Merrill held second and third administrative hearings on the claim. (AR 1670-1707, 1731-71.) Plaintiff appeared and testified at both hearings, and was represented by a non-attorney representative. In addition, a vocational expert (VE) testified, and the ALJ employed the assistance of medical expert Dr. Koocher. On June 19, 2013, the ALJ issued a second unfavorable decision. (AR 973-91.) Plaintiff again sought judicial review, filing the Complaint in this matter on October 17, 2013. (Doc. 1.) On November 21, 2014, this Court granted the Commissioner's consented-to motion to remand under sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), due to the Commissioner's inability to locate the recording of the January 2013 administrative hearing. (Doc. 24; see Doc. 23.)

         A fourth and final administrative hearing was held by ALJ Lisa Groeneveld-Meijer on October 25, 2016. (AR 1772-1824.) Plaintiff again appeared and testified, and was represented by a non-attorney representative. In addition, a VE testified at the hearing, and the ALJ employed the assistance of medical expert Dr. Fuess[1]. On March 1, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from her alleged disability onset date of February 28, 2007 through the date of the decision. (AR 1711-30.) Because the Court had remanded the matter under sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (see Doc. 24), it has retained jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claim. The Court is now in receipt of the entire administrative record, including the records of each of the four administrative hearings, and the matter is ripe for judicial review.

         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 Groeneveld-Meijer first determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date of February 28, 2007. (AR 1714.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: an affective disorder, an anxiety-related disorder, ADHD, and “polysubstance dependence with episodes of relapsing and remitting substance use.” (Id.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's cognitive deficits due to head trauma were non-severe, given that Plaintiff did not seek any ongoing treatment of this impairment. (AR 1716.) Nonetheless, the ALJ noted that she considered and assessed Plaintiff's cognitive deficits in conjunction with her other mental impairments. (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 1716-21.) Next, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform “a full range of work at all exertional levels, ” except as follows:

[Plaintiff] is able to perform work activity that is routine day to day with simple instructions and few steps (up to a maximum of three). She is capable of incidental and superficial interactions with the general public should it occur, but interaction with the general public should not be required to perform her job duties. Work activity should not be fast-paced, meaning no belt-paced work, timed work, or work with strict quotas. [Plaintiff] is capable of routine, day-to-day interaction with others. Work activity should involve few, if any, changes day[] to[] day.

(AR 1721.) Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work because there was no evidence of any work activity performed by Plaintiff within the past 15 years that rose to the level of substantial gainful activity. (AR 1728.) Finally, based on testimony from the VE, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including the representative occupations of hand packager, dishwasher, and merchandise marker. (AR 1729.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not ...

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