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Jeffrey S. v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

August 24, 2018

JEFFREY S., Plaintiff


          John C. Nivison U.S. Magistrate Judge

         On Plaintiff'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 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 August 31, 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, but non-listing-level impairments consisting of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, polysubstance abuse, spine disorder and arthritis. (Id. ¶¶ 3 - 4.) The ALJ, however, found Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium exertion work, but cannot perform production rate or pace work, and must work in a “low-stress environment, ” with only occasional decision-making, changes in work setting, and interaction with the public and with co-workers. (Id. ¶ 5.) Based on the stated RFC, Plaintiff's vocational background, and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retains the capacity to perform past relevant work as a groundskeeper, and that Plaintiff could transition to other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including the representative jobs of cleaner, kitchen helper, office cleaner, and auto detailer. (Id. ¶ 6.) Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (Id. ¶ 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).


         The record supports, and Plaintiff does not challenge, the ALJ's findings regarding Plaintiff's mental health impairments, which included depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. (R. 17 - 18.) Plaintiff argues that the final administrative decision should be vacated because the ALJ's determination that he can work in a job having a “low stress environment” is vague, unreviewable, and contrary to Social Security Ruling 85-15, and relevant legal authority in this District. MacFarlane v. Astrue, No. 2:07-cv-132-DBH, 2008 WL 660225, at *3, and Lancellotta v. Sec'y of HHS, 806 F.2d 284, 285 (1st Cir. 1986). (Statement of Errors at 4 - 5.)

         Following a consultatitve examination in May, 2014, Donna Gates, Ph.D., opined that Plaintiff would be able to manage “a mild level of work-related stress and function independently on simple tasks.” (Ex. 5F, R. 388, ECF No. 9-7.) The assessment is consistent with the evaluation of a treatment provider, Jonathan Purinton, LCPC, who determined that Plaintiff requires a “low stress” job. (Ex. 4F, R. 382.)

         Consultative experts who reviewed Plaintiff's claim on behalf of Disability Determination Services also concluded that Plaintiff has a severe impairment, but believed Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity for full-time work with certain limitations. They also noted Dr. Gates's statement that Plaintiff could manage a mild level of work-related stress. (Lewis Lester, Ph.D., Ex. 1A, R. 114 - 15; Mary Burkhart, Ph.D., Ex. 5A, R. 144 - 45, ECF No. 9-3.)

         At the hearing on Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ asked the vocational expert to consider a hypothetical individual with a residual functional capacity that included the ability to perform work that “may have some busy periods but not the assembly line scenario, ” with “only occasional interaction with the public and co-workers.” (Hr'g Tr. at 66, R. 99, ECF No. 9-2.) The ALJ further described the hypothetical individual as one who “essentially …. should work in a low stress environment” that included “only occasional decision making, occasional changes in work setting.” (Id.) The vocational expert identified several jobs the individual could perform. The vocational expert testified the individual would be able to perform Plaintiff's past relevant work as a groundskeeper, and other substantial gainful activity such as maintenance worker, kitchen helper, office cleaner, and auto detailer. (R. 99 - 101.)

         Plaintiff contends remand is required because the ALJ's reference to a restriction to work in a “low-stress environment” is impermissibly ...

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