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Parker v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maine

September 19, 2016

ASHLEY N. PARKER, Plaintiff
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM DECISION [1]

          John H. Rich III United States Magistrate Judge

This Child's Disability Benefits (“CDB”) 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 failed to find that she had a severe impairment of personality disorder and made a determination of her mental residual functional capacity (“RFC”) that is unsupported by substantial evidence. See Statement of Specific Errors (“Statement of Errors”) (ECF No. 13) at 1-10.[2] I agree that the administrative law judge erred in both respects and that the errors were not harmless. Accordingly, I vacate the commissioner's decision and remand this case for further proceedings consistent herewith.

         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 had severe impairments of anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), and learning disability, Finding 3, Record at 15; that she had the RFC to perform simple work at all exertional levels involving no public interactions, Finding 5, id. at 17; that, considering her age (19 years old, defined as a younger individual, on her amended alleged disability onset date, October 1, 2010), education (limited), work experience (none), and RFC, there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform, Findings 7-10, id. at 21; and that she, therefore, had not been disabled from her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision, May 16, 2014, Finding 11, id. at 22.[3] 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 her 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 2 of the sequential evaluation process. Although a claimant bears the burden of proof at Step 2, it is a de minimis burden, designed to do no more than screen out groundless claims. McDonald v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 795 F.2d 1118, 1124 (1st Cir. 1986). When a claimant produces evidence of an impairment, the commissioner may make a determination of non-disability at Step 2 only when the medical evidence “establishes only a slight abnormality or [a] combination of slight abnormalities which would have no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work even if the individual's age, education, or work experience were specifically considered.” Id. (quoting Social Security Ruling 85-28).

         I. Discussion

         The record contains four expert opinions bearing on the plaintiff's mental RFC: a May 16, 2012, report of agency examining consultant Edward Quinn, Ph.D., a June 1, 2012, opinion of agency nonexamining consultant Brian Stahl, Ph.D., an August 23, 2012, opinion of agency nonexamining consultant Brenda Sawyer, Ph.D., and a March 26, 2014, assessment by the plaintiff's treating counselor Molly Eldredge, LCPC, the rejection of which the plaintiff does not contest. See Record at 20, 75-80, 98-100, 548-52, 666-67; Statement of Errors at 1-10.

         A. Relevant Opinions

         With the benefit of a psychological evaluation conducted on May 16, 2012, Dr. Quinn diagnosed the plaintiff with cognitive disorder NOS [not otherwise specified], R/O [rule out] panic disorder without agoraphobia, learning disorder NOS by history, borderline intellectual functioning, and borderline personality disorder. See Record at 552. He gave her a current GAF, or Global Assessment of Functioning, score of 55 to 65. See id.[4] He stated:

She should be able to follow work rules. She may have some difficulties interacting with others due to personality factors. She should be able to use appropriate gross judg[]ment. She may have some difficulties with stressors at times. She should be able to function independently. Difficulties with attention, concentration, persistence, pace, and memory were not observed during the clinical interview. She should be able to complete simple job tasks. As job tasks become increasingly more complex and detailed, she is likely to have increased difficulties. She should be able to maintain personal appearance. She may have some issues with emotional stability. She may have some difficulties in social settings.

Id. at 551.

         With the benefit of the Quinn report, first Dr. Stahl and then Dr. Sawyer assessed the severity of the plaintiff's mental impairments using forms that track the commissioner's prescribed psychiatric review technique (“PRT”).

         Adjudicators must follow that prescribed technique in assessing whether, at Step 2, a claimant has medically determinable mental impairment(s); if so, whether, at Steps 2 and 3, such impairments are severe and meet or equal the criteria of any impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P, 20 C.F.R. § 404 (the “Listings”); and, if one proceeds to Steps 4 and 5, the degree to which such impairments impact RFC. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a, 416.920a.

         At Step 2, the severity of a mental impairment is assessed on the basis of a rating of the degree of limitation in four broad functional areas: (i) activities of daily living, (ii) social functioning, (iii) concentration, persistence, or pace, and (iv) episodes of decompensation. See Id. If a mental impairment is judged to be severe but not to meet or equal a Listing, assessment of a claimant's mental RFC is required; if it is judged nonsevere, no mental RFC assessment need be made. See id.

         Dr. Stahl indicated that he gave great weight to the Quinn report. See Record at 77. He found that the plaintiff had four medically determinable mental impairments, two of which (personality disorders and organic mental disorders) were severe, and two of which (anxiety disorders and affective disorders) were nonsevere. See id. at 75-76. He indicated that those impairments collectively caused moderate restriction of activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning, and moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, with no repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. See id. at 76.

         In the mental RFC section of the form, he rated the severity of the plaintiff's specific limitations in four categories (understanding and memory, sustained concentration and persistence, social interaction, and adaptation) and provided, for each of those categories, a narrative explanation of his ratings. See ...


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