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Christopher B. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maine

November 4, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant


          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 the plaintiff capable of performing work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. The plaintiff seeks remand on the bases that the ALJ erred in evaluating both certain opinion evidence of record and the plaintiff's testimony regarding his symptoms and limitations. See Itemized Statement of Specific Errors (“Statement of Errors”) (ECF No. 13) at 1. I conclude that neither error occurred. Accordingly, I recommend that the court affirm the commissioner's decision.

         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 September 30, 2016, Finding 1, Record at 12; that he had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, anxiety, and polysubstance abuse disorder, Finding 3, id. at 13; that he had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) with postural, manipulative, environmental, and mental limitations the details of which are not relevant here, Finding 5, id. at 16; that, considering his age (45 years old, defined as a younger individual, on his alleged disability onset date, February 20, 2014), education (at least high school), work experience (transferability of skills immaterial), and RFC, there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that he could perform, Findings 7-10, id. at 22; and that he, therefore, had not been disabled from February 20, 2014, his alleged disability onset date, through the date of the decision, December 14, 2016, Finding 11, id. at 23-24. 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 5 of the sequential evaluation process, at which stage the burden of proof shifts to the commissioner to show that a claimant can perform work other than his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Goodermote, 690 F.2d at 7. The record must contain substantial evidence in support of the commissioner's findings regarding the plaintiff's RFC to perform such other work. Rosado v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 807 F.2d 292, 294 (1st Cir. 1986).

         I. Discussion

         A. The ALJ's Evaluation of the Treating Source Opinions

         The plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's assignment of limited weight to the opinions of two treating physicians, Alexandra L. Degenhardt, M.D., and Michael MacDonald, M.D., on the basis that the sole rationale provided is unsupported by substantial evidence. See Statement of Errors at 4-6. He contends that, as a result, the ALJ failed to supply the requisite good reasons for discounting treating source opinions, warranting remand. See id.; Heath v. Astrue, No. 1:12-cv-99-DBH, 2012 WL 6913440, at *11 (D. Me. Dec. 30, 2012) (rec. dec., aff'd Jan. 18, 2013) (“[O]nce the [ALJ] [has] determined that [a treating source] opinion [i]s not entitled to controlling weight, [the ALJ] ha[s] discretion to reject it, provided that he supplie[s] ‘good reasons' for so doing.”) (quoting 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527[(c)(2)], 416.927[(c)(2)]). I conclude that the ALJ's explanation is supported by substantial evidence and, therefore, that he supplied the requisite good reasons for his assignment of little weight to the Degenhardt and MacDonald opinions.

         In a treatment note dated August 18, 2016, Dr. Degenhardt diagnosed the plaintiff with severe right carpal tunnel syndrome, mild left carpal tunnel syndrome, and severe cervical and shoulder muscle spasms from degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine as well as prior injuries. See Record at 853. She prescribed Lyrica for his “severe neuropathic pain with shooting pains into the right arm, both hands, right side of the neck, and right shoulder” and expressed willingness to provide a certificate for medical marijuana to address “his severe pain, as well as muscle spasms[.]” Id. She stated:

Clearly, [the plaintiff] is unable to perform any degree of physical work for employment. He would also be severely limited in anything that flexes the wrists or the elbows, especially on a repetitive basis. He suffers from chronic intractable pain as a result.


         Dr. MacDonald submitted a letter dated September 1, 2016, in which he expressed the opinion that the plaintiff was “unable to work at this time due to his significant physiological and psychological impairments[, ]” including neck and bilateral shoulder pain and severe bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. Id. at 846. He stated that the plaintiff's shoulder pain “kept him from being able to lift or carry objects of significant weight” and that he had “decreased sensation in his hands secondary to his neck problems as well as severe carpal tunnel syndrome.” Id.

         In an accompanying Physical Impairment Medical Source Statement of the same date, Dr. MacDonald indicated, inter alia, that the plaintiff's experience of pain and other symptoms was severe enough to interfere constantly with the attention and concentration needed to perform even simple work tasks, that he could not remain in one position for more than five minutes at a time, could not work an ...

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