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Thomas Sheffield v. Michael Astrue


November 28, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe Chief Judge


I. Introduction

Plaintiff Thomas Sheffield challenges the Commissioner of Social Security's determination that he was no longer entitled to Supplemental Security Income (SSI),*fn1 seeking judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). (See Compl., Dkt. No. 1.) After reviewing the administrative record and carefully considering Sheffield's arguments, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded.

II. Background

Sheffield, born January 8, 1990, filed an application for SSI childhood disability under the Social Security Act ("the Act") in December 1996, and was subsequently found disabled with an onset date of November 25, 1997. (See Tr.*fn2 at 37, 97-99.) On March 2, 2009, Sheffield was notified that he was no longer eligible for SSI due to a redetermination based upon the adult SSI standard. (Id. at 56-59.) Sheffield sought reconsideration and a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) was held on April 29, 2010. (Id. at 62-67, 560-578.) On June 17, 2010, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision and found that Sheffield's disability ended on March 31, 2009. (Id. at 23-34.) That decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Sheffield's request for review. (Id. at 12-14.).

Sheffield commenced the present action by filing his Complaint on October 3, 2011 wherein he sought review of the Commissioner's determination. (See generally Compl.) The Commissioner filed an answer and a certified copy of the administrative transcript. (See Dkt. Nos. 8, 9.) Each party, seeking judgment on the pleadings, filed a brief. (See Dkt. Nos. 12, 14.)

III. Contentions

Sheffield contends that the Commissioner's decision is tainted by errors of law and is not supported by substantial evidence. (See Dkt. No. 12 at 5-12.) Specifically, Sheffield claims that the ALJ: (1) erred in finding that he had no limitations in his abilities to deal with others and stress; and (2) erred in failing to obtain testimony from a vocational expert (VE). (See id.) The Commissioner counters that the appropriate legal standards were used by the ALJ and his decision is also supported by substantial evidence. (See Dkt. No. 14 at 11-19.)

IV. Facts

The court adopts the parties' undisputed factual recitations. (See Dkt. No. 12 at 2-5; Dkt. No. 14 at 2-11.)

V. Standard of Review

The standard for reviewing the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)*fn3 is well established and will not be repeated here. For a full discussion of the standard and the five-step process by which the Commissioner evaluates whether a claimant is disabled under the Act, the court refers the parties to its previous opinion in Christiana v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 1:05-CV-932, 2008 WL 759076, at *1-3 (N.D.N.Y. Mar. 19, 2008).

VI. Discussion

The ALJ found that, as of March 31, 2009, Sheffield "maintain[ed] the abilities (on a sustained basis) to understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions; respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and usual work situations; and deal with changes in a routine work setting."*fn4

(Tr. at 30.) Among other arguments, Sheffield contends that the residual functional capacity (RFC) determination is not supported by substantial evidence*fn5 because the ALJ failed to include any stress limitations. (See Dkt. No. 12 at 11.)

Sheffield is correct in that the RFC does not include any stress limitations. (See Tr. at 30.) However, several medical and non-medical sources have found that Sheffield does indeed experience limitations in his ability to handle stress. For example, in March 2009, Mary Ann Moore, the state agency consultative examining psychologist, found that Sheffield "appear[ed] to have difficulty in dealing with stress. With stress, he bec[ame] easily overwhelmed and exhibit[ed] anxiety and depression." (Id. at 532, 537.) Dr. Nobel, the state agency review psychiatrist, noted in April 2009, that Sheffield "d[id] have some difficulty modulating stress. Under stressful conditions he can become overwhelmed, impulsive and make poor decisions." (Id. at 539.) Sheffield's teacher, Kelly Davies, similarly noted that he "ha[d] a hard time staying on task when he [wa]s frustrated." (Id. at 401.)

Sheffield and his mother also both testified that he has difficulties dealing with stress. For example, Sheffield stated that he did not finish his cosmetology class at BOCES because "the stress for [him] was just getting too much." (Id. at 567.) Sheffield's mother stated that "he really gets stressed out if he gets a lot of responsibility and he can loose [sic] his temper at times and he does have problems listening to directions." (Id. at 574.) She further testified that Sheffield has "a problem with anger also when he's over stressed with things." (Id. at 576.)

SSR 85-15 emphasizes the need to carefully evaluate a claimant's ability to deal with stress in the workplace. See SSR 85-15, 1985 WL 56857, at * 5-6 (1985). While Sheffield's limitations regarding stress may not be debilitating, the ALJ's failure to discuss why no stress limitations were included in the RFC, in light of the above cited evidence, necessitates remand. See Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984) (requiring the Commissioner to set forth "the crucial factors in [his] determination . . . with sufficient specificity to enable [the court] to decide whether the determination is supported by substantial evidence.") (internal citations omitted).

Accordingly, the court finds that the ALJ failed to adequately evaluate Sheffield's ability to handle stress in making his RFC determination. Because Sheffield's remaining contentions may be impacted by the subsequent proceedings directed by this Order, it would be improper for the court to consider them at this juncture.

VII. Conclusion

WHEREFORE, for the foregoing reasons, it is hereby ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and REMANDED pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for proceedings consistent with this Memorandum-Decision and Order; and it is further

ORDERED that the Clerk close this case and provide a copy of this Memorandum-Decision and Order to the parties.


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