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James C. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Vermont

January 9, 2020

James C., Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER (DOCS. 11, 12)

          John M. Conroy United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff James C. 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. 11), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 12). For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's motion is GRANTED, in part; the Commissioner's motion is DENIED; and the matter is REMANDED for further proceedings and a new decision.


         Plaintiff was 37 years old on his alleged disability onset date of August 1, 2008. As a child, he struggled in school, both academically and socially, but was able to attain a high school diploma. He has held many different jobs for short periods, including as a machine operator, a carpenter helper, a janitor, and a gas station attendant. Plaintiff was married when he was in his 20s. His wife suffered several miscarriages and then delivered a child with severe birth defects who died days after her birth. (AR 181.) In around 2001, Plaintiff and his wife divorced. (AR 181, 1155.) He now lives by himself in a mobile home in Waterbury.

         Plaintiff has suffered several severe traumas in his life, including being extensively burned in a house fire in April 2005 and significantly injured in an automobile accident in April 2008. These incidents have left him with permanent physical injuries, primarily to his hands and right leg, and also with mental impairments including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and sleep problems including chronic nightmares. Additionally, Plaintiff has hemochromatosis (a disorder in which the body stores too much iron) and carpal tunnel syndrome.

         In the 2005 fire, Plaintiff suffered burns to his head, neck, and hands, leaving him with sensitivity in those areas to the sun, cold, water, and exertion. Additionally, his hands often crack and bleed, especially when exposed to water, humidity, or cold weather; or when he picks up something heavy or squeezes too frequently or tightly. In the 2008 car accident, Plaintiff suffered an injury to his right femur (thigh bone). A rod was placed, but he still had chronic pain and difficulty walking or climbing stairs. In November 2015, the rod was removed, and Plaintiff's pain lessened.

         As for his mental impairments, Plaintiff has poor focus and memory, and difficulty concentrating on short tasks. Moreover, Plaintiff testified that he has “awful, ” repetitive nightmares “all the time.” (AR 196.) His nightmares are “of people peeling my skin off, because I was awake during my operation [for burn treatment].” (Id.) Due to the nightmares and other issues, Plaintiff averages less than three hours of interrupted sleep each night. (AR 197.)

         Since the 2005 fire, Plaintiff has largely isolated himself in his home, venturing out only to grocery shop and attend medical appointments. He feels he is unable to live with anyone due to his nightmares and irritability. He also has social anxieties and is not effective at communicating with others. Plaintiff testified: “I've been isolated for eight years. I don't see people. I won't go near people. I pace back and forth for 21 hours a day [in] a dark house.” (AR 186.) He has only one friend who comes over to play cribbage and drink beer about once a week. (AR 170, 193, 203.) In October 2015, Plaintiff stated that he “spends his days doing nothing, ” other than: shoveling his driveway when necessary (and then he is in bed for a day or so after), watching movies, building fishing rods, cooking for himself, learning the computer “a bit, ” and driving to appointments (but not far due to pain). (AR 816.)

         In August 2015, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI. In his disability application, he alleged that he has been unable to work since August 1, 2008 due to burns on his shoulders, neck, face, and hands; a rod in his right leg; a bone spur in his right hip; depression; and a “[l]earning disability with computers.” (AR 485.) His applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he timely requested an administrative hearing. On June 22, 2017, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Paul Martin conducted a hearing on Plaintiff's applications. (AR 154-219.) Plaintiff appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel. A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. On August 2, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act from his alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 275-88.)

         Thereafter, the Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, and remanded the case for a new hearing and decision, finding that: (1) the ALJ's RFC determination was not specific enough regarding Plaintiff's ability to have “[l]imited interactions with the general public” (AR 281), and was internally inconsistent regarding Plaintiff's manipulative limitations in fingering and handling (AR 296); (2) the VE's testimony at the hearing was inconsistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) regarding limitations in fingering and handling, and the ALJ's decision did not address this inconsistency (AR 297); and (3) the ALJ mischaracterized the VE's testimony regarding other jobs Plaintiff could perform (id.).

         On November 8, 2018, ALJ Martin held the second hearing on Plaintiff's applications. (AR 98-153.) Plaintiff again appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel; and a VE also testified. On January 3, 2019, the ALJ issued a second decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act from his alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 11-26.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-7.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this action on March 14, 2019. (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, in his January 2019 decision, ALJ Martin first determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date of August 1, 2008. (AR 14.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “Depression, Anxiety, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Residual Effects from Burns, and a Femoral Shaft fracture.”[1] (Id.) Conversely, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome, right shoulder impairment, hemochromatosis, rib/neck pain, and chest pain/syncope/hypertension, were each nonsevere. (AR 14-15.) The ALJ also noted that, “although [Plaintiff] may have issues with alcohol abuse, the objective medical evidence of record does not support a finding that [Plaintiff] is disabled even when considering the effects of that substance abuse.” (AR 15.) Acknowledging that multiple providers noted Plaintiff's continued moderate to heavy alcohol use, despite their recommendations that Plaintiff cease all alcohol use, the ALJ stated: “there is no evidence that [Plaintiff's] physical impairments worsened with his alcohol use, and even considering his ongoing alcohol use, his combined impairments do not direct a finding of disability.” (AR 15-16.)

         At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (Id. at 16.) 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 frequently finger and handle bilaterally. He must avoid extreme heat and extreme cold. He must avoid excessive exposure to water (meaning that he must avoid working with water involving his hands to avoid cracks in his skin). He must avoid prolonged or concentrated exposure to humidity. [He] can maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for one[-] to four[-]step tasks in two-hour blocks over a normal eight-hour workday. He can engage in routine interactions with coworkers and supervisors (meaning that he needs to work on his own, but he can be around coworkers and supervisors), but he cannot interact with the general public.

(AR 18.) Applying this RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as a gas station attendant and a carpenter helper. (AR 24.) Nonetheless, the ALJ determined that there are other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including the representative occupations of hand packager inspector, price marker, and mail sorter. (AR 25.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from his alleged disability onset date of August 1, 2008 through the date of the decision. (AR 26.)

         Standard ...

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