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Littlefield v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maine

June 28, 2017

KRYSTAL LYNN LITTLEFIELD, Plaintiff
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION [1]

          John C. Nivison U.S. Magistrate Judge

         In this action, Plaintiff Krystal Lynn Littlefield seeks disability insurance benefits under Title II and supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Defendant, the Social Security Administration Acting 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).

         Following a review of the record, and after consideration of the parties' arguments, the Court affirms the administrative decision.

         The Administrative Findings

         The Commissioner's final decision is the May 20, 2015, decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (ECF No. 10-2).[2] The ALJ's decision tracks the familiar five-step sequential evaluation process for analyzing social security disability claims, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe, but non-listing-level impairments consisting of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and polysubstance dependence on replacement therapy for opioid dependence. (Decision ¶¶ 3, 4.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following limitations: she can understand, remember and carry out simple, repetitive instructions, and would need to avoid interaction with the general public, but can interact appropriately with co-workers and supervisors. (Id. ¶ 5.) Plaintiff's RFC does not enable Plaintiff to perform her past relevant work, but the ALJ found that a person with Plaintiff's RFC and vocational profile could perform other substantial gainful activity. (Id. ¶ 6, 10.) Based on the findings, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability between her alleged onset date of March 1, 2010, and May 20, 2015. (Id. ¶ 11.)

         Plaintiff's Statement of Errors

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred because she failed to give controlling weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treatment providers and erroneously asserted that the record did not contain medical source statements suggesting Plaintiff is disabled or specifying the degree of her limitations. (Statement of Errors at 1 - 2, ECF No. 12.) Plaintiff also contends the ALJ erred because she failed to give greater weight to evidence from other sources, including information provided by Terry Hallett (Ex. 10F), a woman for whom Plaintiff worked in a volunteer capacity, and to records prepared by Plaintiff's therapists. (Id. at 2 - 4.) Plaintiff further maintains that the ALJ improperly evaluated the significance of Plaintiff's decision not to take certain prescribed medications and her success with group and individual therapy. (Id. at 4 - 6.) Finally, Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's decision to rely on the framework of the Guidelines at step 5 of the sequential evaluation process. (Id. at 6.)

         Discussion

          A. Standard of Review

         The 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).

         B. Analysis

         1. The record evidence

          Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to weigh properly the opinions of three medical sources: Joseph Deitz, M.D., Louisa Barnhart, M.D., and Patricia Kolosowski, Ph.D. (Statement of Errors at 1 - 2.) Plaintiff additionally contends that the evidence provided by other sources, specifically therapists Tammy Trask and Tanya Johanson, and witness Terry Hallet, persuasively demonstrates Plaintiff's inability to perform substantial gainful activity. (Statement of Errors at 2 - 4.) Plaintiff describes her symptoms as ...


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