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Ellison v. Berryhill

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 23, 2017

STEVEN ELLISON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DEBORAH A. ROBINSON, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Steven Ellison ("Plaintiff) commenced this action against the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant"), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking reversal of an Administrative Law Judge's decision denying Plaintiffs claim for Supplemental Social Income Benefits. See Complaint (ECF No. 1) at 1. Pending for determination by the court are Plaintiffs Motion for Judgment of Reversal ("Plaintiff s Motion") (ECF No. 10) and Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance ("Defendant's Motion") (ECF No. II).[2] Upon consideration of the motions, the memoranda in support thereof and opposition thereto, the administrative record, and the entire record herein, the court will grant, in part, Plaintiffs Motion and deny Defendant's Motion.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On September 13, 2012, Plaintiff applied for Supplemental Security Income Benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging December 5, 2005 as the onset date of his disability. Plaintiffs Memorandum (ECF No. 10-1) at 1. Plaintiff cited gout, arthritis, swollen joint and hypertension as the bases for his claim of disability. Id. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiff s disability claims initially and upon reconsideration. Id.

         Following the denial, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Said hearing took place on June 24, 2014. Id. at 2. On November 5, 2014, the ALJ denied Plaintiffs claim, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Id. at 2. In the decision, the ALJ utilized the five-step process outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 to determine whether Plaintiff was disabled. Administrative Record ("AR") (ECF No. 7-3) at 5.

         At Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date. Id. at 7. At Step Two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: "gouty arthritis and osteoarthritis and allied disorder." Id. At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiffs impairment did not meet or medically equal the severity of any listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, specifically considering Listing 1.02. Id. at8.[3] At Step Four, the ALJ conducted a residual functional capacity assessment of the Plaintiff and found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform less than full range of medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c), but could frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, climb ramps and stairs, and occasionally climb ropes, ladder and scaffolds. Id. Additionally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. Id. at 12. At Step Five, after considering Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity ("RFC"), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was able to perform other work and thus, was not disabled, as defined by the Social Security Act. Id. at 17-18.

         Thereafter, Plaintiff sought review of the decision by the Appeals Council. Plaintiff s Memorandum (ECF No. 10-1) at 2. The Appeals Council rejected Plaintiff s request, concluding that there was no basis for granting review of the ALJ's denial. Id.

         CONTENTIONS OF THE PARTIES

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's decision must be reversed because his assessment of Plaintiffs RFC was not supported by substantial evidence. Primarily, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to consider Plaintiffs "periodic flare-ups of gouty arthritis[, ]" Plaintiffs "primary impairment[, ]" when determining Plaintiffs RFC. Plaintiffs Memorandum at 5. More specifically, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ's failure to consider the "frequency and duration" of Plaintiffs flares resulted in an inaccurate analysis of and determination with respect to Plaintiff's RFC. Plaintiffs Reply (ECF No. 16) at 4. Plaintiff asserts that during his episodes of flares, he has difficultly performing basic tasks, and the ALJ should have assessed Plaintiff s ability to sustain gainful employment during a flare-up period to accurately discern Plaintiffs RFC. Plaintiffs Memorandum at 5 ("His flare-ups primarily impact his hands and his feet, and limit his abilities to stand and walk, perform fine and gross manipulation, and perform activities of daily living."). According to Plaintiffs testimony, the flares induced by his condition occur "between one time per week and one time per month" and "the length of the gout flare[] was reported to be anywhere from a few days to two weeks." Id. at 6.

         Given the significant limitation of motor movements caused by his reoccurring flares, Plaintiff argues that the vocational expert could not have considered these impairments and still found Plaintiff capable of performing gainful employment activity, particularly after stating during the administrative hearing that "if an individual was absent from work as little as two days per month, the individual would not be employable." Plaintiffs Reply at 4 (citing ARat78). Plaintiff concludes that as a result of the ALJ's failure to consider the effect of Plaintiffs gout flares on his ability to sustain substantial gainful employment, the RFC finding that Plaintiff could perform "medium exertional" work is unsupported by substantial evidence in the record. See id. at 23.

         In response, Defendant asserts that the ALJ's RFC determination, in which the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform a limited range of medium work including standing, sitting or walking for six hours in an eight-hour day, was supported by substantial evidence in the record. As argued by Defendant, substantial evidence existed in the record to support the ALJ's determination, including the medical opinion of Dr. Randi Abramson (excluding her April 2012 letter), Dr. Fizzeh Nelson-Desiderio, a disability determination services physician, and Plaintiff s own testimony concerning his ability to perform daily activities. Defendant's Memorandum at 11-12.

         In reply, Plaintiff reasserts the aforementioned arguments and challenges Defendant's attempt to apply a post-hoc rationalization to the ALJ's decision to deny Plaintiffs claim for benefits. In response, Defendant asserts that Plaintiffs claims lack merit and the ALJ properly considered the evidence in the record and determined, based on substantial evidence, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the statutory definition outlined by the SSA.

         STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

         The Social Security Act of 1935 ("the Act") established a framework to provide "disability insurance benefits" to eligible individuals and "supplemental security income" to individuals who have attained the age of 65, are blind, or disabled." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423, 1381, 1381a. The Act defines "disability" for non-blind individuals as "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); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905. A "disabled" individual is eligible for supplemental security income if he or she meets additional statutory requirements concerning income and resources. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a). The SSA has promulgated regulations, pursuant to the Act, outlining a five-step process for determining disability of adults. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520, 416.920.

         First, the agency evaluates whether the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity." If so, the agency concludes that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b); 416.920(a)(4)(i), (b).

         Second, if the claimant is not engaging in substantial gainful activity, the agency determines whether the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical or medical impairment that meets the duration requirement ... or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the ...


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