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Laliberte v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

April 20, 2018




         On Plaintiff Margiejo Laliberte's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, Defendant, the Social Security Administration Commissioner, found that Plaintiff has severe impairments, but retains the functional capacity to perform past relevant work and other 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, the Court affirms the administrative decision.

         The Administrative Findings

         The Commissioner's final decision is the April 27, 2016, decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (ECF No. 6-2.)[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 osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and carpal tunnel syndrome. The ALJ further determined that the impairments limit Plaintiff's work capacity, but do not deprive her of the residual functional capacity (RFC) to engage in light work, provided she sits no more than six hours and stands no more than six hours in a workday, never climbs ladders, ropes or scaffolds, never is exposed to unprotected heights or dangerous equipment, and only occasionally climbs stairs or ramps, bends, stoops, kneels, crouches and/or crawls. (ALJ Decision ¶¶ 3 - 5, R. 23 - 27.)

         The ALJ also found that with her RFC, Plaintiff is able to perform past relevant work as a cashier and/or office worker. (Id. ¶ 6, R. 30.) Alternatively, based on vocational expert testimony, the ALJ found that a person with Plaintiff's vocational background and RFC would be able to engage in substantial gainful activity in other occupations, including the representative occupations of retail marker, laundry worker, and mail sorter. (Id. ¶ 6, R. 31.) Given her findings, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability at any time between the alleged onset date, June 30, 2011, and the date last insured, June 30, 2014. (Id. ¶ 7, R. 32.)

         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 argues the ALJ erred when she failed to find Plaintiff's anxiety to be a severe impairment at step 2, failed to give controlling weight to the primary care provider's RFC opinion that Plaintiff cannot perform even sedentary work, and failed to evaluate properly Plaintiff's credibility. (Statement of Errors, ECF No. 8.)

         A. Step 2 Omission of Anxiety Disorder

         Plaintiff argues that her anxiety symptoms severely limit her ability to perform work activities. (Statement of Errors at 3 - 4.) The ALJ concluded that the record evidence demonstrated that Plaintiff's anxiety symptoms are well controlled by medication and do not cause more than a minimal degree of limitation. (R. 24.)

         At step 2 of the sequential evaluation process, a social security disability claimant must establish the alleged conditions are severe, but the burden is de minimis, and is designed merely to screen out groundless claims. McDonald v. Sec'y of HHS, 795 F.2d 1118, 1123 - 24 (1st Cir. 1986). The ALJ may find that an impairment or combination of impairments is not severe when the medical evidence “establishes only a slight abnormality or combination of slight abnormalities which would have no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work even if the individual's age, education, or work experience were specifically considered.” Id. at 1124 (quoting Social Security ...

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