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Reil v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maine

October 16, 2017

ELLEN M. REIL, Plaintiff



         On Plaintiff Ellen Reil's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II 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 past relevant work. Defendant, therefore, denied Plaintiff's request for disability benefits. Plaintiff filed this action for 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, I recommend the Court affirm the administrative decision.

         The Administrative Findings

         The Commissioner's final decision is the December 9, 2015, decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (ECF No. 10-2.)[1] 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 attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety disorder, but that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, provided the work involves only “simple tasks, ” is “object oriented, ” and involves only occasional interaction with the public. (ALJ Decision ¶¶ 3 - 5.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's RFC would enable her to perform past relevant work as a maid/housekeeper. (Id. ¶ 6.) Alternatively, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform other substantial gainful activity, including the representative occupations of janitor, kitchen worker, packager, cleaner, and assembler. Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff was “not disabled” for the period starting with the alleged onset date of May 26, 2011, and ending on the date of decision, December 9, 2015. (Id. ¶ 7.)

         Standard of Review

         A court must affirm the administrative decision provided the correct legal standards were applied and provided the decision is supported by substantial evidence. This is so 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 the ALJ ignored medical opinion evidence from Brian Stahl, Ph.D., a state agency consultant, that, if credited, would preclude Plaintiff's interaction with the general public. Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred when she omitted the limitation because she relied on Dr. Stahl to support her RFC finding and did not explain the reasons she did not follow Dr. Stahl's opinion regarding Plaintiff's ability to interact with the public. (Statement of Errors at 8 - 9, ECF No. 14.) Plaintiff also argues her past relevant work was part-time and thus cannot serve as a basis for denial at step 4. (Id. at 10.) Plaintiff further maintains the ALJ's alternative step 5 finding was error because the vocational expert's opinion upon which the ALJ relied was unreliable because the hypothetical question from which the opinion was derived was flawed. (Id. at 11.) Finally, Plaintiff contends the ALJ did not properly weigh treating source opinion evidence. (Id. at 12 - 16.)

         On October 7, 2014, Disability Determination Services consultant Dr. Stahl, upon reconsideration of the initial denial determination, found that Plaintiff had the capacity to engage in substantial gainful activity in the form of “simple” work, but that she was not able to work with the public. (Ex. 4A, R. 97 - 98.) Dr. Stahl considered, inter alia, the report of consultative examination performed by Patricia Kolosowski, Ph.D. (Ex. 8F, R. 374), and the available treatment records of Donna Novelli, Ph.D. (Ex. 6F). (See Ex. 4A, R. 89 - 91.) According to the ALJ, Dr. Stahl's opinion “is consistent with the record.” (R. 30.)

         Plaintiff's most recent mental health provider, Dr. Novelli, opined that due to Plaintiff's mental impairments, Plaintiff does not have the mental abilities and aptitudes needed to do unskilled work. (Ex. 7F, R. 368; Ex. 11F.) Dr. Novelli also determined that Plaintiff is “seriously limited, but not precluded” from interacting appropriately with the general public. (Ex. 7F, R. 369.) The ALJ gave Dr. Stahl's opinion “substantial evidentiary weight” and Dr. Novelli's opinion “minimal weight.” (R. 29.)

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ did not sufficiently refute Dr. Novelli's opinion, and should have given the opinion more weight. Contrary to Plaintiff's argument, the ALJ provided sound reasons to reject or discount Dr. Novelli's opinion, including the fact that the longitudinal records fail to substantiate limitations assessed by Dr. Novelli. (R. 29.) Furthermore, the ALJ's determination is also supported by Dr. Kolosowski's source statement that Plaintiff “presents as having some abilities to work in some situations, ” but that “she might be more successful in situations with few people.” (Ex. 8F, R. 377.) The ALJ also determined Plaintiff's subjective report of symptoms was not particularly credible, citing in part the progress report of a treating source (Laura Hancock, D.O.) who declined Plaintiff's request to support her claim of disability on the ground that Plaintiff appeared to be capable of working.[2] (R. 28 - 30; Ex. 2F, R. 278.) The ALJ's credibility assessment, which is supported by competent evidence on the record, reinforces the ALJ's decision to assign minimal weight to Dr. Novelli's opinion. Moreover, the opinions of both Dr. Stahl and Dr. Kolosowski provide support for the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff has a residual functional capacity for substantial gainful activity. In short, the record evidence supports the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff has the capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, with the ability to understand and carry out simple tasks.

         The next issue is whether Plaintiff's work capacity includes some interaction with the public. The ALJ found that Plaintiff “has a limitation in social interactions requiring an object oriented task with only occasional work related interactions with the general public.” (R. 25.) Plaintiff argues in part that the ALJ erred because although she afforded substantial weight to Dr. Stahl's opinion, the ...

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