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Swenson v. Social Security Administration Acting Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

April 17, 2018



          John C. Nivison, U.S. Magistrate Judge

         On Plaintiff Elaine M. Swenson'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 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, I recommend the Court affirm the administrative decision.

         The Administrative Findings

         The Commissioner's final decision is the March 15, 2016, decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (ECF No. 10-3).[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 fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, and affective and anxiety-related disorders. (ALJ Decision at 4, ¶¶ 3 - 4, R. 119 - 20.) In the ALJ's assessment, the limitations restrict Plaintiff's work capacity, but leave her with the residual functional capacity to perform light work that is simple, routine, and repetitive, including work that requires frequent fingering, handling, and reaching. Plaintiff cannot negotiate ladders, ropes or scaffolds, and can negotiate ramps and stairs, crawl, stoop, kneel and crouch on no more than an occasional basis. Additionally, Plaintiff must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and can only work in a low stress environment, defined as one that involves only occasional decision-making and changes in work setting. (Id. at 7, ¶ 5, R. 122.) As to Plaintiff's claim of mental impairment, the ALJ wrote: “The evidence of record does not support a finding that the claimant's symptoms resulted in marked or extreme mental status abnormalities or work-related limitations.” (R. 125.)

         The ALJ also determined, based in part on vocational expert testimony, that given Plaintiff's age, residual functional capacity, and vocational background, Plaintiff would be able to perform other work existing in the national economy, including the representative jobs of hand packager inspector, bench assembler, mail sorter, and price marker. (Id. at 13, ¶ 10, R. 128.) Because the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff can perform substantial gainful activity, he found Plaintiff was not disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act for the period commencing with the alleged onset date, July 1, 2011, through the date of decision. (Id. at 14, ¶ 11, R. 129.)

         Standard of Review

         The Court must affirm the administrative decision provided the decision is based on the correct legal standards and 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).


         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's assessment of the limitation on her ability to interact with the public, which limitation was included in the ALJ's residual functional capacity (RFC) finding. Plaintiff also contends the ALJ erred when he failed to include in a hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert, every functional limitation in the RFC, and specifically the limitation that precludes Plaintiff from working with the public.

         A. Whether the ALJ Erred in His Assessment of Plaintiff's RFC

         With respect to Plaintiff's RFC, the record contains medical expert opinion evidence exclusively from agency consulting physicians. In other words, the record does not include an RFC opinion from a treating source. Brian Stahl, Ph.D., opined on January 21, 2014, that Plaintiff is able to understand and remember at least simple instructions and tasks, but not complex information; to work in 2 hour blocks performing simple tasks over the normal workday/week; to work with supervisors and coworkers; and to adapt to simple changes; but is not able to work with the public. (Ex. 1A, R. 68 - 70.) Dr. Stahl provided his assessment in connection with the initial denial of Plaintiff's Title II claim by Disability Determination Services. Upon Plaintiff's request for reconsideration, on December 22, 2014, Thomas Knox, Ph.D., provided an expert assessment that was consistent with Dr. Stahl's assessment. (Ex. 3A, R. 81 - 83.)

         The record also includes an earlier opinion from Dr. Knox, which opinion Dr. Knox provided in connection with the administrative review of a prior claim Plaintiff made for disability insurance benefits. (Ex. 7A, ECF No. 10-3.) At that time, after reviewing a December 2012 psychological assessment issued by John Hale, Ed. D. (Ex. 28F, ECF No. 10-8), Dr. Knox suggested that Plaintiff might have some ability to work with ...

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