United States District Court, D. Maine
ELAINE M. SWENSON, Plaintiff
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION ACTING COMMISSIONER, Defendant
REPORT AND RECOMMENDED DECISION
C. Nivison, U.S. Magistrate Judge
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).
a review of the record, and after consideration of the
parties' arguments, I recommend the Court affirm the
Commissioner's final decision is the March 15, 2016,
decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (ECF No.
10-3). The ALJ's decision tracks the familiar
five-step sequential evaluation process for analyzing social
security disability claims, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
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.
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.)
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).
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.
Whether the ALJ Erred in His Assessment of Plaintiff's
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 -
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 ...