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Cooley v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maine

October 25, 2017



          John C. Nivison, U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         On Plaintiff Shawn Cooley's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II and supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, Defendant, the Social Security Administration 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 for judicial review of Defendant's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff argues that Defendant's assessment of Plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity lacks evidentiary support in the record, and thus Defendant's determination that Plaintiff can engage in substantial gainful activity also is unsupported by the record.

         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 July 6, 2015, decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (ECF No. 9-2.)[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, and that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, subject to a number of limitations. Additionally, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the mental residual functional capacity to understand, remember, and carry out simple tasks, provided the work is “object oriented” and involves “only occasional superficial work-related interactions.” (ALJ Decision at 7, ¶ 5.)

         In her assessment of Plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity, the ALJ relied on the opinion of Leigh Haskell, Ph.D., who reviewed the medical record for Disability Determination Services and issued a report dated February 20, 2014. (Exs. B6A, B7A.) Dr. Haskell determined that Plaintiff has a depressive disorder and an anxiety disorder that impact his work capacity, but found that he “can carry out at least simple tasks during a normal work schedule” and “can not consistently persist at complex work tasks.” (Ex. B7A, R. 261.) According to Dr. Haskell, Plaintiff cannot interact with the public at work, “would do better with independent work, ” but “is able to interact adequately with supervisors and a small group of coworkers.” (Id., R. 262.) Dr. Haskell further found that Plaintiff “is able to adapt to simple routine changes and make basic decisions.” (Id.)

         In support of her assessment, Dr. Haskell cited the February 19, 2014, report of consultative examiner Roger Ginn, Ph.D. Dr. Ginn, who conducted a psychological evaluation of Plaintiff on February 18, 2014, stated that Plaintiff could “handle mild work-related stress and focus and concentrate, ” “if he did not have to deal with a lot of people.” (Ex. B14F, R. 691 - 92, ECF No. 9-7.) Dr. Ginn also concluded that Plaintiff would not “have any difficulty understanding and carrying out job-related tasks.” (Id.)

         The ALJ gave “great weight” to Dr. Haskell's RFC assessment, concluding that it was “consistent with Dr. Ginn's report” and the longitudinal record. (ALJ Decision, R. 25.) The ALJ also evaluated the longitudinal medical record and Plaintiff's subjective complaints. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's statements regarding the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of his symptoms were not particularly credible. (Id., R. 26-27.)

         At the hearing, the vocational expert testified that a person with the ALJ's proposed RFC would be able to engage in substantial gainful activity as a cleaner/housekeeper, final inspector, buckle inspector, film touch-up inspector, dowel inspector, stone setter, and compact assembler. The vocational expert also testified that if the tasks were limited to “occasional superficial work related interactions, ” the jobs would still be available. (R. 182 - 83.)

         Standard of Review

         A court must affirm the administrative decision provided the ALJ applied the correct legal standards 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 ...

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