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Ward v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maine

July 10, 2015

LEONA WARD, Plaintiff


JOHN C. NIVISON, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Leona Ward seeks disability insurance benefits under Title II and supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. 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' arguments, the recommendation is that the Court affirm the administrative decision.


The Commissioner's final decision is the April 5, 2013, decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (ECF No. 10-2).[2] The ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe, but non-listing-level impairments consisting of schizophrenic, paranoid and other psychotic disorders; affective disorder; anxiety related disorders; and personality disorders. (ALJ Decision ¶¶ 3, 4.) After considering the impairments, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to work at all levels of physical exertion, but is restricted by non-exertional limitations to simple, routine, repetitive tasks; and occasional interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public. ( Id. ¶ 5.) At step 4 of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not established an inability to engage in past relevant work as a bicycle courier. ( Id. ¶ 6.) Additionally, based on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could adjust to other full-time substantial gainful activity, which includes work in sedentary occupations such as assembler, packer, and addresser. ( Id. ) The ALJ thus ultimately determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability from September 15, 2010, the alleged onset date, through April 5, 2013, the date of decision. ( Id. ¶ 7.)


A court must affirm the administrative decision provided that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and provided that 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 she failed to address Plaintiff's ability to engage in substantial gainful activity on a sustained basis, which approach was contrary to Defendant's "full-time work rule." Plaintiff maintains that the ALJ in effect required Plaintiff to prove that she was "totally disabled, " when the ALJ should have assessed whether Plaintiff was simply unable to sustain full-time work on a regular and continuing basis. (Statement of Errors at 4-5.)

According to Plaintiff, with her condition, she cannot work full-time because full-time work activity would result in an exacerbation of her symptoms, particularly her tendency to hear voices when under significant stress. ( Id. at 6; Hr'g Tr., R. 40, 45, 47, ECF No. 10-2.) In support of her position, Plaintiff cites the expert opinion of her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Mohammad Farooque, who determined, inter alia, that Plaintiff cannot function in the workplace, cannot complete a normal workweek or workday without interruption caused by her symptoms, and must remain in a controlled environment in order to avoid escalation of her paranoia and delusions. (Exs. 29F, 35F.) Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to give appropriate weight to Dr. Farooque's opinions, and in fact failed to consider or reference the second of Dr. Farooque's two reports regarding the degree of Plaintiff's impairment. (Statement of Errors at 9.) Plaintiff further notes that although the ALJ assigned great weight to the opinion of the Maine Disability Determination Services consulting physician, Dr. Spangler, who concluded that Plaintiff is limited in her ability to complete a full workday or workweek without interruption from her symptoms, the ALJ did not discuss the effect of Plaintiff's medications on her ability to work. ( Id. at 11-12.)

A. The ALJ did not subject Plaintiff's applications to a heightened standard

In assessing whether a claimant is disabled for social security purposes, the ALJ must determine whether claimant has the ability to perform "substantial gainful activity, " 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572, 416.972, on a "regular and continuing basis, " 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(b), (c), 416.945(b), (c). See also Social Security Ruling 96-8p ("A regular and continuing basis' means 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule."). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ effectively did not apply the "full-time work rule" when the ALJ relied on Plaintiff's part-time work history as contradicting Plaintiff's claim of disability (Statement of Errors at 5, citing R. 21), and when the ALJ suggested that Plaintiff's treatment history was inconsistent with the treatment one would expect for a person who is "totally disabled." ( Id., citing R. 29.)

Contrary to Plaintiff's contention, the ALJ did not apply a heightened standard in her assessment of Plaintiff's claim. First, the ALJ correctly stated the applicable standard for assessing her RFC. (R. 20.) In addition, when the ALJ characterized Plaintiff's part-time work as contradictory to Plaintiff's disability claim, the ALJ was referencing the nature of the work, rather than whether the work was full-time or part-time.[3] (R. 21.) Similarly, the ALJ's observation about the inconsistency between Plaintiff's treatment and one who claims to be "totally disabled" was made in the context of the ALJ's assessment of the reliability ...

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