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Lynette P. v. Social Security Administration Acting Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

May 15, 2018

LYNETTE P., Plaintiff
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION ACTING COMMISSIONER, Defendant

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDED DECISION ON PLAINTIFF'S STATEMENT OF ERRORS

          John C. Nivison U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         On Plaintiff Lynette P.'s application for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI 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 June 17, 2016, decision of the Administrative Law Judge. (ALJ Decision, ECF No. 8-2.)[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 post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, alcohol and opiate dependence, degenerative disc disease, sacroiliitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and coronary artery disease. (ALJ Decision at 3, ¶¶ 2 - 3, R. 15 - 16.) In the ALJ's assessment, while the impairments restrict Plaintiff's work capacity, Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work. As determined by the ALJ, Plaintiff can perform simple, routine tasks for 2 hour intervals, but cannot negotiate ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; may only occasionally crawl, stoop, kneel, or crouch; must avoid concentrated exposure to cold and wet environments; cannot remember, understand, or carry out detailed instructions; and may only occasionally interact with the public in the work setting. (Id. at 6, ¶ 4, R. 18.)

         Given the RFC assessment, as well as Plaintiff's age and vocational background, and with the aid of vocational expert testimony, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff can perform substantial gainful activity in such representative occupations as package sorter, collator operator, and laundry sorter. (Id. at 13 - 14, ¶ 9, R. 25 - 26.) Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act for the period commencing September 25, 2013, the date of Plaintiff's SSI application, through the date of decision. (Id. at 14, ¶ 10, R. 26.)

         Standard of Review

         A 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).

         Discussion

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's finding regarding her mental RFC for social interaction. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC finding regarding Plaintiff's ability to interact with members of the public and with supervisors and coworkers is not supported by substantial evidence. The ALJ limited Plaintiff to “occasional” interaction with the public, and found that Plaintiff was not limited in her ability to interact with supervisors and coworkers.

         Because at the time of hearing Plaintiff had not received any counseling for more than one year, (Hr'g Tran. at 5 - 6, ECF No. 8-2, R. 36 - 37), the ALJ referred Plaintiff to a consultative examining psychologist, Peter Ippoliti, Ph.D. (Ex. 17F, ECF No. 8 - 9, R. 786 - 793.) Using a checkbox assessment form approved by the Social Security Administration, Dr. Ippoliti provided his opinion regarding Plaintiff's mental RFC. Dr. Ippoliti assessed Plaintiff as markedly limited in all areas associated with social interaction in the workplace. (R. 792.) Beneath the checkboxes, the form asks the examiner to identify “the factors (e.g., the particular medical signs, laboratory findings, or other factors described above) that support your assessment.” Dr. Ippoliti left the space blank. However, in support of his narrative finding that Plaintiff “is likely to be reactive and defensive, possibly misconstruing the behavior of others, ” Dr. Ippoliti pointed to his consultative evaluation report. (Id.) In the portion of his report labeled Psychological Source Statement, Dr. Ippoliti observed that Plaintiff appeared to be experiencing symptoms associated with trauma history and severe situational psychosocial stressors, including homelessness and lack of treatment services. Dr. Ippoliti found Plaintiff to be a person likely to experience cognitive difficulty, particularly in relation to abstract reasoning, problem-solving, and memory. Dr. Ippoliti believed it likely that Plaintiff would have significant difficulty meeting any of the social demands of work, due to “reactivity to others, defensiveness and negativistic attitude, ” and “cognitive issues.” (R. 789 - 90.)

         The ALJ discounted Dr. Ippoliti's assessment concerning supervisors and coworkers in part because Dr. Ippoliti saw Plaintiff only once, and, in the ALJ's view, Dr. Ippoliti's findings regarding Plaintiff's limitations were not fully supported by the record. (R. 23 - 24.) As to social interaction, the ALJ reasoned that marked limitations were not evident given Plaintiff's ability to maintain friendships and her ability to interact appropriately with medical professionals. (R. 24.) Additionally, the ALJ concluded that the state agency experts, Dr. Leigh Haskell, Ph.D. (Ex. B2A, ECF No. 8-3, R. 90), and Mary Burkhart, Ph.D. (Ex. B5A, ECF No. 8-3, R. 108), offered more reliable assessments of Plaintiff's functional capacity for social interaction in the workplace. (Id.)

         According to Dr. Haskell, who reviewed the record in connection with the agency's initial denial of benefits in December 2013, Plaintiff is markedly limited in the ability to interact with the general public, moderately limited in the ability to accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, not significantly limited in the ability to get along with coworkers and peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes, and not significantly limited in ...


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