United States District Court, D. Maine
PENNY L. MORGAN, Plaintiff.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.
JOHN C. NIVISON, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Penny L. Morgan seeks disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Upon review of Plaintiff's application, Defendant Commissioner found that Plaintiff has severe impairments, but retains the functional capacity to perform substantial gainful activity. Defendant, therefore, denied Plaintiff's request for disability benefits. Plaintiff filed this action to obtain judicial review of Defendant's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
As explained below, following a review of the record, and after consideration of the parties' written and oral arguments, the recommendation is that the Court affirm the administrative decision.
THE ADMINISTRATIVE FINDINGS
Defendant's final decision is the November 19, 2012, decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (ECF No. 15-2). The ALJ's decision tracks the five-step sequential evaluation process for analyzing social security disability claims, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
The ALJ found, and Plaintiff does not dispute in this action, that Plaintiff suffers from depression, anxiety, and substance addiction disorder in apparent remission, and that her qualification for disability benefits depends on the degree to which nonexertional mental limitations impede Plaintiff's ability to engage in substantial gainful activity.
The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to engage consistently in full-time work that involves simple-to-moderately detailed instructions, simple-to-moderately detailed tasks, ordinary interaction with coworkers and supervisors, superficial interaction with the general public, and occasional changes in routine. Although the RFC finding would not permit Plaintiff to return to her past relevant work as a nurse, based exclusively on section 204.00 of the Guidelines, the ALJ summarily found that Plaintiff could make an adjustment to other work. The ALJ, therefore, determined that Plaintiff was not disabled from the date of alleged onset through the date of the decision.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A court must affirm the administrative decision provided that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and provided the decision is supported by substantial evidence, even if the record contains evidence capable of supporting an alternative outcome. Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of HHS, 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996) (per curiam); Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec'y of HHS, 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a finding. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Rodriguez v. Sec'y of HHS, 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981). "The ALJ's findings of fact are conclusive when supported by substantial evidence, but they are not conclusive when derived by ignoring evidence, misapplying the law, or judging matters entrusted to experts." Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred when he rejected certain expert findings that Plaintiff suffers from marked social limitation that interferes not only with her ability to interact with the public, but also with her ability to interact with coworkers and supervisors. Additionally, Plaintiff argues that even if the ALJ's RFC assessment is supported by substantial evidence, the ALJ erred when he made his step 5 finding based exclusively on an application of the Guidelines, and without soliciting any evidence from a vocational expert.
A. Assignment of Weight to Medical Expert Opinion
In support of her claim of error, Plaintiff notes that both the Disability Determination Services consultants and Plaintiff's longtime treating source (Ex. 21F) found a degree of limitation in social functioning greater than the ALJ's assessment. (Statement of Errors at 3.) Defendant acknowledges that the ALJ "deviated slightly from the opinions of Dr. Stahl and Dr. Houston, " who found Plaintiff could not work with the public. (Response at 2.) According to Defendant, when the ALJ determined that Plaintiff can tolerate "superficial" interaction with the public, he simply made a commonsense functional capacity assessment based on Plaintiff's actual work experience with the public, which experience includes the ownership and part-time operation of a cafe ...