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Page v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maine

November 7, 2017

RODNEY S. PAGE, II, Plaintiff
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDED DECISION

          JOHN C. NIVISON U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         On Plaintiff Rodney Page'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 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).

         Following a review of the record, and after consideration of the parties' arguments, I recommend the Court vacate the administrative decision and remand for further proceedings.

         The Administrative Findings

         The Commissioner's final decision is the September 25, 2015, decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (ALJ Decision, 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.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe, but non-listing-level impairments consisting of degenerative disk disease, osteoarthritis, history of right shoulder osteoarthritis, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, bipolar disorder, anxiety, learning disability, and fibromyalgia. (ALJ Decision ¶¶ 4 - 5.) The ALJ further found that, despite his impairments, Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a subset of medium exertion work, subject to several physical limitations, and is further limited to a subset of “simple” work that involves limited change in work settings and routines, does not require literacy, involves no more than 1 or 2 step instructions with few concrete variables that are communicated orally, does not involve working with the public, and does not involve more than occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors. (Id. ¶ 6.)

         Based on the RFC finding and Plaintiff's vocational profile, and based on testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform substantial gainful activity, including in the representative occupations of launderer hand, industrial cleaner, housekeeping cleaner, and linen grader. (Id. ¶ 11.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not been disabled for the period commencing with the alleged onset date, June 25, 2010, and ending on the date of decision, September 25, 2015. (Id. ¶ 12.)

         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).

         Discussion

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ's finding at step 3 - that he does not meet a mental impairment listing - is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ impermissibly “invalidated” the results of an IQ test. (Statement of Errors at 2 - 3.) Plaintiff also contends the ALJ erred when she did not address whether Plaintiff's impairment is medically equivalent to listing 12.05(C), even if it does not meet the listing. (Id. at 3 - 7.) In addition to challenging the step 3 finding, Plaintiff argues the ALJ's RFC finding is flawed because substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome, or the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff can perform substantial gainful activity at the medium-exertion level. (Id. at 8 - 20.)

         A. Step 3

         Plaintiff argues that he qualifies as disabled at step 3 because his degree of impairment meets or equals listing 12.05(C). According to Plaintiff, the ALJ's contrary finding is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ impermissibly judged matters entrusted to experts.

         “The listings are so constructed that an individual with an impairment(s) that meets or is equivalent in severity to the criteria of a listing could not reasonably be expected to do any gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.00(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a). “For a claimant to show that his impairment matches a listing, it must meet all of the specified medical criteria.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990). However, if a claimant has an impairment identified in a listing, but does not meet one or more of the criteria of the listing, the claimant may still be found disabled at step 3 if he has “other findings related to [his] impairment that are at least of equal medical significance to the required criteria.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526(b)(1)(ii) (defining “medical equivalence”).

         Prior to amendments effective January 17, 2017, [2] and for purposes of Plaintiff's claim, the relevant listing language provided:

The structure of the listing for intellectual disability (12.05) is different from that of the other mental disorders listings. Listing 12.05 contains an introductory paragraph with the diagnostic description for intellectual disability. It also contains four sets of criteria (paragraphs A through D). If your impairment satisfies the diagnostic description in the introductory paragraph and any one of the four sets of criteria, we will find that your impairment meets the listing. Paragraphs A and B contain criteria that describe ...

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