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Lynn C. v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

November 6, 2018

LYNN C., Plaintiff


          John C. Nivison U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         On Plaintiff Lynn C.'s application for disability insurance benefits under Title II 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 November 9, 2016, decision of the Administrative Law Judge. (ALJ Decision, ECF No. 6-2.)[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 “other and unspecified arthropathies, ” diabetes mellitus, peripheral neuropathy, and dermatitis. (ALJ Decision, R. 26, 29, ECF No. 6-2.) In her step 2 discussion, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has several non-severe impairments, including carpal tunnel syndrome and psoriatic arthritis.[2] (R. 27 - 29.) Based on her review of Plaintiff's symptoms[3] and the medical evidence, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, occasionally push or pull with the right upper extremity, and occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, or perform overhead work with her right extremity.[4] (R. 29.)

         Based on the RFC finding, Plaintiff's age on the date of hearing (52 years), Plaintiff's education and vocational background, and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant, sedentary work as an appointment clerk in a call center. (R. 35.) Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled through the date of the ALJ's decision, and denied Plaintiff's claim. (R. 35 - 36.)

         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 the decision is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ erroneously found that psoriatic arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome are not severe impairments. Plaintiff observes that appropriate consideration of the limitations associated with the conditions (specifically, Plaintiff's ability to handle objects) would rule out a return to past relevant work, and that a restriction to sedentary work would dictate a finding of disabled under Defendant's Medical-Vocational Guidelines.

         At step 2 of the sequential evaluation process, a claimant must demonstrate that he or she has impairments that are “severe” from a vocational perspective, and that the impairments meet the durational requirement of the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The step 2 requirement of “severe” impairment imposes a de minimis burden, designed merely to screen groundless claims. McDonald v. Sec'y of HHS, 795 F.2d 1118, 1123 (1st Cir. 1986). An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe when the medical evidence “establishes only a slight abnormality or 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. at 1124 (quoting Social Security Ruling 85-28). In other words, to constitute a severe impairment, the impairment must have more than a minimal impact on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities on a regular and continuing basis. Id.

         At step 2, medical evidence is required to support a finding of severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521. See also Social Security Ruling 96-3p (“Symptoms, such as pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, weakness, or nervousness, will not be found to affect an individual's ability to do basic work activities unless the individual first establishes by objective medical evidence (i.e., signs and laboratory findings) that he or she has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) and that the impairment(s) could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged symptom(s).”) (citation omitted). A diagnosis, standing alone, does not establish that the diagnosed impairment would have more than a minimal impact on the performance of work activity. Dowell v. Colvin, No. 2:13-cv-00246-JDL, 2014 WL 3784237, at *3 (D. Me. July 31, 2014). Moreover, severe impairments may be deemed non-severe through the ameliorative influence of medication and other forms of treatment. Parsons v. Astrue, No. 1:08-cv-218-JAW, 2009 WL 166552, at *2 n.2, aff'd, 2009 WL 361193.

         A. Carpal ...

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