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David T. v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

August 23, 2018

DAVID T., 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 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 vacate the administrative decision and remand the matter for further proceedings.

         The Administrative Findings

         The Commissioner's final decision is the June 28, 2017, 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 impairments consisting of degenerative disk disease of the lumbar and cervical spine; status post skin graft surgery of the hands for third-degree burns experienced in a house fire in 1991; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (similarly related to the fire and a severe inhalation injury, but also aggravated by Plaintiff's smoking habit); personality disorder; and depressive disorder. (ALJ Decision ¶¶ 2, R. 12 - 14.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light exertion, simple, unskilled work; to frequently use foot controls; to occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, and kneel; to frequently rotate, extend, and flex his neck; to frequently handle, finger, and feel; and to occasionally interact with co-workers and supervisors. (Id. ¶ 4, R. 15.) The ALJ, however, found that Plaintiff cannot crawl; tolerate exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, wetness, humidity, excessive vibration, and concentrated airborne irritants; or tolerate interaction with the public. (Id.)

         Given the stated RFC, Plaintiff's vocational background, and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that jobs exist in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including the representative occupations of laundry folder (DOT#369.687-018), flagger (#372.667-022), and sorter (#529.687-186). (Id. ¶ 9, R. 21.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not been under a disability since April 30, 2015, the date Plaintiff filed his application for SSI benefits. (Id. ¶ 10, R. 22.)

         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 in his assessment of Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ (1) erroneously weighed the available expert opinion evidence and (2) erroneously evaluated Plaintiff's testimony.

         The ALJ placed great weight on the RFC opinion provided by Jose Gonzalez-Mendez, M.D. (Ex. C6A, ECF No. 9-3), who reviewed the medical evidence of record on behalf of Disability Determination Services, on March 15, 2016. (R. 19.) The ALJ characterized Dr. Gonzalez-Mendez's opinion as consistent with the objective medical evidence and reliable because Dr. Gonzalez-Mendez reviewed all of the medical evidence and was familiar with the applicable disability standard. (Id.) The ALJ, however, did not adopt Dr. Gonzalez- Mendez's finding that Plaintiff's ability to stand/walk and to sit are each limited to 6 hours in a workday. The ALJ also assessed some greater limitations than Dr. Gonzalez-Mendez identified - specifically, the preclusion of work in extreme temperatures, wetness, humidity and with excessive vibration.

         The ALJ gave partial weight to the opinion of David Axelman, M.D., who did not assess Plaintiff's RFC, but based on two physical examinations, one in January 2014 (Ex. C4F) and the other in September 2015 (Ex. C9F), determined Plaintiff's ability to sit, stand, and walk is compromised, though he did not provide a metric by which to measure Plaintiff's capacity. Notably, Dr. Axelman found that although Plaintiff's hands work adequately, he believed Plaintiff could not handle objects for long periods of time. (Ex. C4F, R. 356 - 57; Ex. C9F, R. 446, ECF No. 9-7.)

         The ALJ assigned little weight to the RFC assessment offered by Plaintiff's care provider, Loraine Paradis, D.O. (Ex. C12F, ECF No. 9-7.) Dr. Paradis determined that Plaintiff rarely could handle 15 pounds, and never 20 or more; cannot walk one city block without rest or severe pain; can sit for less than 1 hour and stand and walk for less than 1 hour in a workday; and would require 3 - 4 unscheduled breaks of 20 - 30 minutes duration during the typical workday. (Id.) Dr. Paradis also opined that Plaintiff could not handle objects or perform fine ...

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