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Poulin v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maine

January 18, 2015

PAUL POULIN, Plaintiff.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JOHN H. RICH, III, Magistrate Judge.

This Social Security Disability ("SSD") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") appeal raises the question of whether the administrative law judge supportably found the plaintiff capable of performing work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. The plaintiff seeks remand on the bases that the administrative law judge made an insufficiently detailed determination of his mental residual functional capacity ("RFC") by failing to evaluate the impact of stress in accordance with Lancellotta v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 806 F.2d 284 (1st Cir. 1986), and erroneously substituted her own lay judgment for that of experts in determining his mental RFC. See Plaintiff's Itemized Statement of Errors ("Statement of Errors") (ECF No. 11) at 2-6. I conclude that the administrative law judge adequately assessed the impact of the plaintiff's stress and reached a mental RFC determination supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, I affirm the commissioner's decision.

Pursuant to the commissioner's sequential evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Goodermote v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 5, 6 (1st Cir. 1982), the administrative law judge found, in relevant part, that the plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2009, Finding 1, Record at 15; that he had severe impairments of status-post vasospasm with no observed coronary artery disease, tobacco abuse, anxiety, and polysubstance abuse in partial remission, Finding 3, id.; that he had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that he needed an ordinary work environment, Finding 5, id. at 16; that, considering his age (44 years old, defined as a younger individual, on his alleged disability onset date, June 16, 2009), education (at least high school), work experience (transferability of skills immaterial), and RFC, there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that he could perform, Findings 7-10, id. at 22; and that he, therefore, had not been disabled from June 16, 2009, through the date of the decision, November 29, 2012, Finding 11, id. at 22. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, id. at 1-3, making the decision the final determination of the commissioner, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481; Dupuis v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 869 F.2d 622, 623 (1st Cir. 1989).

The standard of review of the commissioner's decision is whether the determination made is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Manso-Pizarro v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996). In other words, the determination must be supported by such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion drawn. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Rodriguez v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981).

The administrative law judge reached Step 5 of the sequential evaluation process, at which stage the burden of proof shifts to the commissioner to show that a claimant can perform work other than his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Goodermote, 690 F.2d at 7. The record must contain substantial evidence in support of the commissioner's findings regarding the plaintiff's RFC to perform such other work. Rosado v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 807 F.2d 292, 294 (1st Cir. 1986).

The statement of errors also implicates Step 4 of the sequential evaluation process, at which stage the claimant bears the burden of proving inability to return to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f); Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5. At this step, the commissioner must make findings of the plaintiff's RFC and the physical and mental demands of past work and determine whether the plaintiff's RFC would permit performance of that work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f); Social Security Ruling 82-62 ("SSR 82-62"), reprinted in West's Social Security Reporting Service Rulings 1975-1982, at 813.

I. Discussion

A. Handling of Stress

The plaintiff first complains that, although the administrative law judge found his anxiety severe, she specified no vocationally meaningful mental limitations, stating only that he was limited to an "ordinary" work environment. Statement of Errors at 2. He adds that, in contravention of Lancellotta, the administrative law judge failed to analyze what triggers his stress. See id. at 4; see also Lancellotta, 806 F.2d at 285 ("The ALJ [administrative law judge] made no findings on the nature of [the claimant's] stress, the circumstances that trigger it, or how those factors affect his ability to work.... [The claimant] illuminates the problem with the ALJ's conclusions by accurately observing that stress is not a characteristic of a job, but instead reflects an individual's subjective response to a particular situation. Thus, even if most individuals would not find it particularly stressful to do the jobs listed in the ALJ's decision, we have no evidence showing that [the claimant], who suffers from a severe mental impairment, would react the same way.").

The plaintiff adds that this court was faced with an almost identical situation in MacFarlane v. Astrue, No. 07-132-P-H, 2008 WL 660225 (D. Me. Mar. 5, 2008) (rec. dec., aff'd Apr. 1, 2008), in which it held that remand was required in the absence of a more detailed specification of the meaning of an administrative law judge's finding that a claimant needed to avoid "high stress work." Statement of Errors at 4; MacFarlane, 2008 WL 660225, at *3.

However, as the commissioner responds, see Defendant's Opposition to Plaintiff's Statement of Errors ("Opposition") (ECF No. 13) at 2, "a finding that a particular impairment is severe does not necessarily result in a finding of related limitations on the ability to perform workrelated functions, particularly where, as is the case here, the impairment is one that can be treated with medication, " Courtney v. Colvin, No. 2:13-cv-72-DBH, 2014 WL 320234, at *4 (D. Me. Jan. 29, 2014) (citation omitted). The administrative law judge explained that the plaintiff's anxiety symptoms had "generally been well-controlled with medication" and were triggered only by unusual stress. Record at 18-19.

In any event, as the commissioner further argues, the administrative law judge assessed an anxiety-related restriction, doing so in a manner that comports with the requirements of Lancellotta. See Opposition at 2-5. As the commissioner observes, see id. at 3, this court has held that the requirements of Lancellotta are met when an adjudicator evaluates the impact of a claimant's mental impairments on his or her ability to meet the basic mental demands of work, namely, the abilities to understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions; respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and customary work situations; and deal with changes in a routine work setting, see Mason v. Astrue, Civil No. 08-17-B-W, 2008 WL 4822238, at *4 (D. Me. Nov. 4, 2008) (rec. dec., aff'd Nov. 25, 2008). An adjudicator may rely on the opinion(s) of examining consultant(s) regarding a claimant's capability to meet those mental work demands. See id.

The commissioner persuasively argues that, in deeming the plaintiff limited to an ordinary work environment, the administrative law judge impliedly found him capable of performing those basic mental demands. See Opposition at 3. She correctly observes that, as in Mason, the administrative law judge relied on the opinions of examining consultants who had evaluated the plaintiff's ability to perform such tasks. See id. at 4-5.

The administrative law judge explained that she gave the most weight to the opinions of agency examining consultants Donna Gates, Ph.D., and Gary Rasmussen, Ph.D. See Record at 19. Based on a March 19, ...

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