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Wozniak v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. New York

June 30, 2015


OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 10, 15)


Plaintiff Kenneth Wozniak 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 ("Commissioner") denying his applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income ("SSI"). Pending before the court are the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. For the reasons stated below, the court DENIES Wozniak's motion and GRANTS the Commissioner's motion. The decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

I. Background

Kenneth Wozniak was thirty-nine years old on his alleged disability onset date of March 19, 2011. (AR 10.) He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, migraines, and post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). (AR 248, 276, 461.) He has a tenth-grade education. (AR 187.) Wozniak has lived in various halfway houses, and at the time of the hearing he was living in emergency housing. (AR 39, 440.)

Wozniak has an extensive history of alcohol dependence treatment. He was hospitalized at least four times since 2004 for detoxification and inpatient treatment. (AR 234.) He has also participated in various rehabilitation and outpatient treatment programs, completing most but failing one due to lack of attendance. (AR 258.) In 2007, Wozniak's girlfriend was killed by a drunk driver, and he has found it more difficult to remain sober since then. (AR 35.) Wozniak has no relationship to family members; his parents are deceased and his brother is also alcohol dependent. Wozniak's father was also addicted to alcohol and was physically and emotionally abusive. (AR 444.)

In 2008, Wozniak began experiencing severe migraine headaches. (AR 27.) He claims that he has about five headaches per week, lasting up to a day or longer. (AR 201.) At the onset of a headache, he sees spots and feels pain at the nape of his neck and in his left arm. (Id. ) He stated that the headaches themselves are so painful that he vomits, cannot stand light or sound, and is bedridden. (Id.; AR 27.) Dr. Patrick Frieary, Wozniak's migraine treating physician, prescribed Topamax and Imitrex, but Wozniak stated the medications did not control his symptoms. (AR 202, 27.) Dr. Frieary also advised Wozniak to quit smoking, to improve his amount of sleep and his personal hygiene, and to avoid cheese, caffeine, and chocolate. (AR 462.) At the time of the hearing Wozniak was not taking any medication for his migraines. (AR 27.)

In the past, Wozniak worked in the produce department at two grocery stores and at Burger King. (AR 32-33.) He stated that he was fired from all three jobs for absenteeism due to his migraines. (Id. ) Wozniak has not worked since his alleged disability onset date of March 19, 2011, claiming that his anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and migraines prevent him from working. (AR 186.)

Wozniak stated that he spends many days in bed due to his migraines. (AR 194.) On a weekly basis, he also cooks, watches television, and shops for groceries. (AR 194-96.) He stated that he does not do any house or yard work because such work causes him headaches. (AR 196.) He enjoys fishing, but claimed that he fished less often as his headaches became more frequent. (AR 198.) He also stated that his headaches prevent him from having relationships and "hanging out" with friends. (AR 201.)

Wozniak filed for disability insurance benefits on April 13, 2011 and for SSI on April 21, 2011. (AR 163, 166.) His applications for benefits were denied, and a hearing was held on October 12, 2012 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Donald McDougall. (AR 25.) Wozniak appeared and testified, and was represented by an attorney. (Id. ) A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. (AR 44-51.)

At the hearing, Wozniak testified to the frequency and severity of his headaches. (AR 27.) He also stated that he has trouble concentrating and suffers from alternating periods of mania and depression due to his bipolar disorder. (AR 28-29.) He testified that his headaches caused him to miss work ten to twelve times per month, leading to discharge from all his previous jobs. (AR 34.) He further testified that he had difficulty interacting with other people. (AR 39.)

The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on November 5, 2012. (AR 10-18.) The Appeals Council denied Wozniak's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1.) Wozniak appealed to this court on March 24, 2014. (Doc. 1.)

II. The ALJ's Decision

"Disability" under the Social Security Act is the "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). A claimant will be found disabled only if it is determined that his "impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work[, ] but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

In evaluating disability claims the Commissioner uses a five-step procedure. See Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 383 (2d Cir. 2004). At step one the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is presently engaging in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If not, 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, at step three the ALJ determines whether the severe 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). If so, the claimant is presumptively disabled. Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984.)

If the claimant is not presumptively disabled, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which is the most the claimant can do in a work setting despite his limitations based on the relevant evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(a)(1), 416.920(e), 416.945(a)(1). At step four, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's RFC precludes the performance of his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). At the fifth and final 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 proof in the first four steps; 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).

The ALJ first determined that Wozniak met the insured status requirements for disability benefits through March 31, 2013. (AR 12.) Employing the five-step procedure, the ALJ determined that Wozniak had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date of March 19, 2011. (Id. ) At step two, the ALJ found that Wozniak had the following severe impairments: "affective disorder and migraine headaches." (Id. ) The ALJ noted that Wozniak's "alcohol abuse [was] not material to the finding of disability." (Id. ) At step three, the ALJ found that ...

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