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Foster v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

April 23, 2018



          John C. Nivison U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         On Plaintiff Lindsey D. Foster'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 Acting Commissioner, found that Plaintiff has a severe impairment, 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 April 6, 2016, decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (ECF No. 11-2.)[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 a severe, but non-listing-level impairment consisting of organic mental disorder/cognitive processing delay (learning disability). (ALJ Decision ¶¶ 3 - 4.) The ALJ assessed Plaintiff to have the residual functional capacity (RFC) for a full range of work at all exertional levels, subject to nonexertional limitations that restrict Plaintiff to simple, routine, repetitive tasks involving no more than incidental (up to 1/6 of the workday) change in work processes, no more than occasional interaction with supervisors and coworkers, and no interaction with the general public. (Id. ¶ 5.) Based in part on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retains the functional capacity to perform jobs existing in substantial numbers in the national economy, including the representative occupations of floor cleaner, hand packer, and sandwich maker. (Id. ¶ 10, 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 he (a) failed to find a severe anxiety/affective disorder or borderline intellectual functioning, (b) misapplied Listing 12.05(C), and (c) made an RFC finding that is not supported by any medical opinion of record. (Statement of Errors at 1, ECF No. 15.)

         A. Step 2 Omission of Affect/Anxiety Disorder or Borderline Intellect

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred when he failed to find Plaintiff's depression and anxiety, or borderline intellectual functioning, to be severe impairments. 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 Ruling 85-28). In other words, an impairment is severe if it has more than a minimal impact on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities on a regular and continuing basis. Id.

         The ALJ concluded that while the record reflects that Plaintiff has experienced anxiety and depression, the record does not support a finding that Plaintiff's suffers from a severe mental health impairment. (R. 24 - 25.) In support of the finding, the ALJ cited the assessments of consulting experts who reviewed Plaintiff's medical records on behalf of the Maine Disability Determination Services. The assessments include an October 16, 2014, report of Brian Stahl, Ph.D., who, upon review of Plaintiff's request for reconsideration of the administrative denial of Plaintiff's claim, concluded the “affective disorders” of record were non-severe. (Exs. 5A, 6A, ECF No. 11-3, R. 124, 136 - 137.) In addition, in a June 12, 2014, Report of Psychological Evaluation (Ex. 6F, ECF No. 11-8), Leah Baer, Psy.D, determined that under DSM-V, Plaintiff's affective disorder was properly labeled “persistent depressive disorder with mild anxious distress, early onset, with pure dysthemic syndrome.” (Id. at 9.)

         The expert assessments constitute substantial evidence in support of the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's symptoms associated with affect and anxiety related diagnoses are mild when the standards governing disability claims are considered. The treatment records cited by Plaintiff, i.e., Bergeron ...

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