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Angie J. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maine

September 27, 2018

ANGIE J., Plaintiff
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM DECISION [1]

          JOHN H. RICH III UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This Social Security Disability (“SSD”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) appeal raises the question of whether the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) supportably found that the plaintiff did not have a severe impairment. The plaintiff seeks remand on the basis that the ALJ failed to provide good reasons for discounting her treating physician's medical opinions. See Plaintiff's Itemized Statement of Errors (“Statement of Errors”) (ECF No. 15) at 4-10. I find no error and, accordingly, affirm the commissioner's decision. I need not and do not address the plaintiff's separate challenge to the ALJ's alternative Step 5 finding. See id. at 10-15.

         Pursuant to the commissioner's sequential evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Goodermote v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 5, 6 (1st Cir. 1982), the ALJ found, in relevant part, that the plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2018, Finding 1, Record at 19; that she had the medically determinable impairments of obesity (status post gastric bypass), degenerative joint disease of the knees, degenerative joint disease of the right shoulder, iron deficiency, a history of sarcoidosis, a history of alcohol abuse, depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder, Finding 3, id. at 20; that those impairments, considered singly and in combination, did not, or were not expected to, significantly limit her ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months, as a result of which she had no severe impairment or combination of impairments, Finding 4, id.; and that she, therefore, had not been disabled from November 27, 2013, her alleged onset date of disability, through the date of the decision, January 29, 2016, Finding 6, id. at 25. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, id. at 1-3, making the decision the final determination of the commissioner, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481; Dupuis v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 869 F.2d 622, 623 (1st Cir. 1989).

         The standard of review of the commissioner's decision is whether the determination made is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996). In other words, the determination must be supported by such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion drawn. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981).

         The ALJ reached Step 2 of the sequential evaluation process. Although a claimant bears the burden of proof at Step 2, it is a de minimis burden, designed to do no more than screen out groundless claims. McDonald v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 795 F.2d 1118, 1124 (1st Cir. 1986). When a claimant produces evidence of an impairment, the commissioner may make a determination of non-disability at Step 2 only when the medical evidence “establishes only a slight abnormality or [a] combination of slight abnormalities which would have no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work even if the individual's age, education, or work experience were specifically considered.” Id. (quoting Social Security Ruling 85-28 (“SSR 85-28”)).

         I. Discussion

         A. Background

         The ALJ explained that he had considered the degree to which the plaintiff's alleged symptoms could “reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, ” as well as opinion evidence, in deeming the plaintiff's impairments nonsevere. Record at 20. He deemed her “alleged limitations in sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, attention, concentration, focusing, memory, need to lie down, dizziness, need for frequent absences and inability to leave the home . . . not substantiated by competent medical evidence to the degree alleged.” Id. at 22.

         He observed that, although imaging studies had “revealed degenerative joint disease in the bilateral knees and right shoulder[, ]” there was “no evidence of persistent limited range of motion, muscle spasms, atrophy, or neurological deficits[, ]” and the plaintiff had received “minimal, if any, treatment[, ]” not requiring “injections, physical therapy, chiropractic manipulation, or a surgical consult.” Id. He added:

With regard to [the plaintiff's] mental impairments, mental status examinations . . . have been within normal limits. While the [plaintiff] did engage in a partial hospitalization program in August 2014, she attended only five of the recommended twelve to fifteen sessions and was discharged due to noncompliance. The alleged frequency, severity, and duration of [her] mood disorder, anxiety disorder and panic attacks are not supported by the weight of the medical evidence to the degree alleged.

Id. at 23 (citations omitted).

         The ALJ noted that the plaintiff's treating physician, Elisabeth DelPrete, D.O., had submitted both physical and mental medical source statements, which he summarized as follows:

In a [Physical] Medical Source Statement dated May 16, 2014, [Dr. DelPrete] maintained that the [plaintiff] could occasionally and frequently lift and carry less than 10 pounds, never climb stairs, ramps, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, never kneel, crouch, crawl or stoop and occasionally balance, but [did] not [assess] limitations in sitting, standing, walking, [or] pushing/pulling.
In a [Mental] Medical Source Statement dated May 16, 2014, [Dr. DelPrete] maintained that the [plaintiff] would have seriously limiting but not precluded abilities in setting realistic goals or making plans independently, interacting appropriately with the general public, and maintaining socially appropriate behavior, but would be unable to maintain appropriate relationships with co-workers and supervisors. Dr. DelPrete opined that on average, the [plaintiff] would be absent from work[] more than four days per month due to her impairments or treatment. Interestingly, Dr. DelPrete opined that the [plaintiff]'s substance abuse does contribute to her limitations as set forth above. Those statements were apparently withheld from state agency physicians and were not submitted until June 2015. The state agency physicians saw Dr. DelPrete's actual records through August 2014. Her subsequent records do not show any worsening thereafter.

Id. at 24 (citations omitted).

         The ALJ stated that he gave the DelPrete opinions “minimal weight” because they were “inconsistent with her treatment notes and ...


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