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Jaymene L v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

August 20, 2018

JAYMENE L., Plaintiff



         On Plaintiff's application for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, Defendant, the Social Security Administration Commissioner, found that Plaintiff has severe migraine headaches, 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 September 27, 2016 decision of the Administrative Law Judge. (ALJ Decision, ECF No. 9-2.)[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 migraines. (ALJ Decision ¶ 2.) Based on the migraines, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's work capacity is reduced, but that she retains the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work consisting of simple, routine tasks, not at a production pace, with no more than occasional public interaction, subject to certain postural and environmental limitations. (Id. ¶ 4.) Given this RFC, Plaintiff's vocational profile, and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that there are jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform and that Plaintiff, therefore, was not under a disability through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id. ¶¶ 9 - 10.)

         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).


         Plaintiff contends the ALJ's finding that she has the residual functional capacity for full-time work is not supported by substantial evidence on the record and that the frequency and intensity of her migraines would cause her to miss work too often for any employer. Plaintiff more specifically argues that the ALJ's decision to discount the opinion of a treating source, Elisa Thompson, M.D., was not reasonable, and no other medical opinion of record supports the ALJ's RFC finding.

         Plaintiff has a history of migraine headaches, but her symptoms allegedly increased in frequency and intensity after Plaintiff experienced severe head trauma in 2012. (Redington Neurology, Ex. 5F:1, ECF No. 9-7.) Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits on May 29, 2014, alleging onset of disability in September 2012. (ALJ Decision at 1.)

         At an August 2014 neurologic consult, Plaintiff reported weekly migraines, [2] but also the ability to “keep it at bay” if able to “catch the migraine with Zomig, ” a brand name triptan medication. (Ex. 5F:1.) The consult report reflects that Plaintiff's migraine symptoms involve “flashing half moon in the left eye, nausea, vomiting, phonophobia, photophobia, and osmophobia.” (Id.) Karissa Fahnestock, PA, noted an increase in the dosage of Topamax/Topiramate, which “should have a more pronounced and positive effect;” prescribed Zomig nasal spray; and introduced a suppository, Promethazine, to address nausea symptoms, as needed. (Id. at 4.) During a March 2015 office visit with PA Fahnestock, Plaintiff reported that she “continues to treat [migraines] successfully with Zomig and her suppository.” (Ex. 14F:1.) Plaintiff also reported experiencing “headache with nausea” the morning of her visit, and that she was “waiting for her analgesic to kick in.” (Id.) PA Fahnestock nevertheless described Plaintiff as “alert and oriented x3, ” with “normal attention span and ability to concentrate.” (Id. at 2.) PA Fahnestock further supplemented the medication list with a prescription of “nightly nortriptyline.” (Id. at 3.)

         On June 4, 2015, Plaintiff's primary care provider, Dr. Thompson, examined Plaintiff, and as to Plaintiff's “headache, chronic, ” recommended that Plaintiff “continue topiramate and [follow up] with neuro.” (Ex. 16F:8.) Dr. Thompson also noted “no changes required” with respect to migraine headaches. (Id. at 6.)

         On April 8, 2015, Dr. Thompson assessed Plaintiff's RFC to be considerably more limited than the ALJ found. (Ex. 10F.) For example, Dr. Thompson determined that Plaintiff can only walk about 2 hours and sit about 3 hours in an 8-hour workday, that she must change her position approximately every half hour, will need to lie down 2 or 3 times during a work shift, and would be absent from work more than 3 times per month. (R. 351 - 54.) As to the source of the limitations, Dr. Thompson ...

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