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Julie B. v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

August 22, 2018

JULIE B., Plaintiff



         On Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II (DIB) and supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI (SSI) of the Social Security Act, Defendant, the Social Security Administration 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 February 18, 2016, decision of the Administrative Law Judge. (ALJ Decision, ECF No. 7-2.)[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 degenerative disk disease, anxiety disorder, affective disorder, personality disorder, and substance abuse. (Id. ¶¶ 3 - 4.) The ALJ further found that, despite her impairments, Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium-exertion work that involves simple, routine tasks, provided the work requires no more than occasional stooping and does not involve any interaction with the public. (Id. ¶ 5.) Based on the RFC finding, Plaintiff's vocational profile, and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is able to perform substantial gainful activity existing in the national economy, including the representative occupations of laundry folder, photocopy machine operator, and assembler of small parts, [2] and that Plaintiff, therefore, was not under a disability during the period between October 9, 2011, and the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id. ¶¶ 6 - 7.)

         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 argues that the Court should remand her DIB and SSI claims for further proceedings because the ALJ failed to consider and weigh properly a Veteran's Administration (VA) disability rating decision and VA treating source opinions. (Statement of Errors, ECF No. 11.) In her Statement of Errors, Plaintiff specifically challenges the ALJ's decision regarding the extent of Plaintiff's mental health impairment.

         A. The ALJ's Assessment of Opinion Evidence

         On July 30, 2014, as part of the initial review of Plaintiff's disability claim by Disability Determination Services, Peter Allen, Ph.D., opined that Plaintiff has the RFC for simple work. He determined that despite variable concentration with routine tasks over a normal workday and workweek, and despite social limitations that preclude work with the public, Plaintiff can function within a small group and tolerate normal supervision, but would do best in a relatively solitary workstation. (Ex. 2A, R. 89 - 90, ECF No. 7-3.)

         On December 30, 2014, in connection with Disability Determination Services' reconsideration of Plaintiff's claim, Lewis Lester, Ph.D., provided a similar assessment. (Ex. 8A, ECF No. 7-3.) According to Dr. Lester, Plaintiff can understand and remember simple and moderately detailed tasks and procedures, can be reliable and sustain two-hour periods performing simple tasks at a consistent pace without significant interruption from mental symptoms over a normal workday and workweek, cannot interact with the public, can interact with coworkers and supervisors in a normal setting, and can adapt to routine changes and make basic decisions. (R. 142 - 143.)

         Among the evidence considered by Drs. Allen and Lester was the report of the July 10, 2014, consultative examination provided by James Moran, Ed.D.[3] (Ex. 26F, ECF No. 7-8.) ...

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