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Thomas D. v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

January 10, 2019

THOMAS D., Plaintiff


          John C. Nivison U.S. Magistrate Judge

         On Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II[1] 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 April 4, 2017 decision of the Administrative Law Judge. (ALJ Decision, ECF No. 14-2.)[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.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe, but non-listing-level impairments consisting of obesity and diabetes type II with peripheral neuropathy. (ALJ Decision ¶¶ 3, 4, R 13.) The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff, though impaired, retains the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light-exertion work, provided he does not have to stand and/or walk for greater than 3 hours in an 8-hour workday, or for longer than a 1hour interval. Additionally, the ALJ found Plaintiff is able to perform frequent fingering, pushing, and pulling, but only occasional feeling. Plaintiff cannot operate foot controls, balance on uneven surfaces, or climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. Plaintiff can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, crouch, kneel, stoop, and crawl. Plaintiff's RFC is also subject to certain environmental restrictions. (Id. ¶ 5, R. 14.)

         Plaintiff's past relevant work consists of driving a bus, which he is unable to perform because the job requires medium exertion and the use of his feet. (Id. ¶ 6, R. 18; Hr'g Tr. at 4, R. 37.) After considering Plaintiff's RFC and Plaintiff's age (younger individual), and education (high school), a vocational expert testified that work exists in sufficient numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including in three specific, sedentary occupations (bench worker, assembler, and circuit board inspector). (ALJ Decision ¶¶ 7 - 10, R. 18 - 19.) The ALJ accepted the vocational expert's testimony and concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. ¶¶ 10 - 11, R. 19 - 20.)

         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 ALJ did not adequately explain the reasons he gave only limited weight to the vocational rehabilitation report, particularly as to the findings regarding upper extremity function. Plaintiff maintains the report is consistent with the opinions expressed by Sarah Chamberlain, D.O., and Sarah Crane, D.O., who assessed Plaintiff's limitations. (Statement of Errors at 5 - 7.) Plaintiff further argues the ALJ erred in the weight afforded to the opinion evidence of record (id. at 7 - 12), and did not fairly evaluate Plaintiff's reported symptoms (id. at 12 - 15).

         A. Assessment of Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ improperly weighed the work capacity determination made by Dustin Greenlaw of the Maine Bureau of Rehabilitation Services. The ALJ discussed Mr. Greenlaw's report and gave “limited weight” to Mr. Greenlaw's determination. (R. 15.) The ALJ assessed Mr. Greenlaw's conclusions in the context of his evaluation of the entire record. As the following analysis reveals, the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's medical records and the medical opinions of record is sound, and thus his decision to give limited weight to Mr. Greenlaw's report is supportable.

         In his assessment of Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ considered the functional capacity evaluation (FCE) report of Anne Knowles, PT, dated February 20, 2015. (R. 15; Ex. 3F, R. 323 - 26.) According to Ms. Knowles, Plaintiff reported that he was unable to pass the Department of Transportation physical to remain a bus driver; that he is limited in his ability to engage in “tight grasp activities like shoveling” and certain lifting activity like “setting up the cones, mats, weights, dexterity tests, etc. when at work” (R. 323); and that he ...

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