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Albert S. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

November 14, 2018

Albert S., Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 15, 17)

          John M. Conroy United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Albert S. 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 Plaintiff's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 15), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 17). 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 39 years old on his alleged disability onset date of December 10, 2011. He completed school through the eleventh grade, and has worked as a delivery truck driver, a folding machine operator, and a construction worker. He lives with his wife of over ten years and has no children.

         Plaintiff stopped working in around December 2011, after injuring his back while on the job. (See AR 18, 355, 362.) Despite undergoing surgery in March 2012 (AR 370), Plaintiff continues to suffer from chronic back pain (AR 92, 100-01). At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified that this pain is sometimes constant, sometimes intermittent; and it prevents him from doing any physical activity including sitting, standing, and walking; and it negatively affects his sleep. (AR 92, 96-97, 102.) Plaintiff takes methadone, Percocet, and ibuprofen, among other medications, to alleviate his pain, but these medications cause him to be tired and “foggy.” (AR 93.)

         In addition to his back pain, Plaintiff has been diagnosed with several mental health impairments, including depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and explosive disorder. (AR 15, 18, 93-94.) He suffers from night terrors, and never sleeps for longer than three hours at a time. (AR 102-03.) Plaintiff takes Adderall for his ADHD but does not take any medication for his depression or anxiety because when he has in the past, the medication either did not alleviate his symptoms or resulted in too many unpleasant side effects. (AR 99.) Plaintiff's medical providers have been careful about what types and levels of medications to prescribe Plaintiff because he has had problems with alcohol and cocaine use in the past. (AR 541.) He stopped drinking alcohol in around 2006 (id.; but see AR 474 (quit alcohol in 2004), 481 (quit alcohol in 2009), 782 (quit alcohol in 2008)), and stopped using cocaine in around 2000 (AR 481).

         Plaintiff testified that he does not like people; he has no friends; and he does not get along with his relatives including his father. (AR 94-95, 105.) He stated that he becomes nervous and tense around crowds, preferring to avoid them. (AR 106.) On a typical day, Plaintiff watches around eight hours of television, plays video games for approximately 30 minutes, takes his dog for a walk around the block with his wife, and prepares simple meals like microwavable soup. (AR 103-05.)

         In February 2015, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI. (AR 11, 244-45.) In his disability application, Plaintiff alleges that, starting on December 10, 2011, he has been unable to work due to a back injury (ruptured disc), episodic mood disorder, depression, and PTSD. (AR 263.) In a March 2015 Function Report, Plaintiff explained that, before his work injury, he was physically active and strong, but since then, he “struggle[s] to get through each and every day.” (AR 281.) He further stated that he has “a long history of mental illness that has become much worse” in the few years prior to 2015. (Id.) In an April 2015 Function Report, Plaintiff stated that he forgets simple things, sometimes fails to finish projects, has a difficult time focusing on a task without getting distracted, has trouble following directions, and does not like being told what to do. (AR 300.)

         Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he timely requested an administrative hearing. A hearing was conducted on June 14, 2016 by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Matthew Levin. (AR 87-119.) Plaintiff appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert (VE) also testified. On August 4, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act from his alleged disability onset date of December 10, 2011 through the date of the decision. (AR 11-30.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-6.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this action on January 30, 2018. (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 Levin first determined that, although Plaintiff had earned income after his alleged disability onset date of December 10, 2011, he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity. (AR 13.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, depression, and anxiety. (Id.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's post-concussive syndrome and obesity were non-severe. (AR 14.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's physical or mental impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 14-17.)

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

[Plaintiff] can sit for 8 hours, stand for 1 hour, and walk for 1 hour, with an allowance to change positions as needed; he can frequently perform overhead reaching and lateral reaching, bilaterally, with no manipulative limitations; he can frequently push or pull with the lower left extremity; he can tolerate occasional exposure to heights, wetness, temperature extremes, and vibrations; he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, and crouch; he must avoid using ladders and stooping; he is limited to performing simple, 1- to 3-step tasks in a low production setting; he is able to maintain his attention and concentration for 2-hour ...

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