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Dawn Z. v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

October 31, 2018

DAWN Z., Plaintiff
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION COMMISSIONER, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION ON PLAINTIFF'S STATEMENT OF ERRORS

          John C. Nivison, U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         On Plaintiff Dawn Z'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, awarded Plaintiff benefits, but only for a limited period of disability, based on a finding that Plaintiff experienced medical improvement. 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, the Court vacates the administrative decision and remands the matter for further proceedings.[1]

         The Administrative Findings

         The Commissioner's final decision is the February 8, 2017, decision of the Administrative Law Judge. (ALJ Decision, ECF No. 9-2.)[2] 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 social anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, panic disorder, chronic knee pain bilaterally, remote right knee replacement, and fibromyalgia. (R. 25 - 26.) For purposes of Plaintiff's appeal, the material residual functional capacity (RFC) findings included the findings that Plaintiff's impairments would render her off task for more than 15 percent of the workday, would have required that she have constant supervision, and would not have permitted her to tolerate typical work stressors, for the period beginning November 21, 2013, and ending June 30, 2016. (R. 28.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's functional capacity improved beginning July 1, 2016. (R. 35.) Specifically, the ALJ found that beginning July 1, 2016, Plaintiff was able to work independently, would be off task for only 10 percent of the workday (not including assigned breaks), and would be absent no more than one day every three months. (R. 35 - 36.) The ALJ found the changes in Plaintiff's RFC were material, and in reliance on a vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff would be able to perform substantial gainful activity in specific representative jobs as of July 1, 2016. (R. 38.)

         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).

         Discussion

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ's decision to find her mental residual functional capacity materially improved as of July 1, 2016, is not supported by substantial evidence, primarily because it is unsupported by an expert medical opinion. (Statement of Errors at 3, 13 - 15.)

         Defendant's regulations recognize that a period of disability may end based on “medical improvement.”

Medical improvement is any decrease in the medical severity of your impairment(s) which was present at the time of the most recent favorable medical decision that you were disabled or continued to be disabled. A determination that there has been a decrease in medical severity must be based on improvement in the symptoms, signs, and/or laboratory findings associated with your impairment(s).

20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(1). For medical improvement to be material to a disability claim, the decrease in medical severity must increase the individual's ability to perform work activity. Id. § 404.1594(a).

         A review of the ALJ's decision reflects that the ALJ modified her findings regarding Plaintiff's RFC based on her review and interpretation of entries made in Plaintiff's mental health treatment records beginning in 2016. Based on this review, the ALJ found a significant improvement in Plaintiff's ability to remain on task during the typical workday, that Plaintiff no ...


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