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Kathy R. v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

February 6, 2019

KATHY R., Plaintiff


          John C. Nivison U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         On Plaintiff Kathy R.'s application for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI 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 18, 2017 decision of the Administrative Law Judge. (ALJ Decision, ECF No. 9-2.)[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 major depressive disorder, personality disorder, and obesity. (ALJ Decision ¶¶ 2, 3, R. 24-25.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity (RFC) for work at all exertional levels, subject to “no more than occasional postural adaptations” and the avoidance of hazardous or challenging environments (heights, machinery, ladders, ropes, scaffolds, loud noises, temperature extremes, and pulmonary irritants). Additionally, Plaintiff's mental RFC permits simple, routine, repetitive tasks involving no more than incidental (no more than 1/6 of the workday) use of independent judgment or discretion, or changes in work processes. Finally, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is precluded from jobs requiring interaction with the public, and also jobs involving more than incidental interaction with coworkers. (Id. ¶ 4, R. 27.)

         Given the stated RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff cannot perform past relevant work as a cashier checker. (Id. ¶ 5, R. 32.) Based on the RFC, Plaintiff's age (38 as of the application date), education (high school), and vocational expert testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff can perform substantial gainful activity consisting of other jobs existing in substantial numbers in the national economy, including the representative jobs of garment folder, hand packager, and janitor.[2] (Id. ¶ 9, R. 32-33.) Because the ALJ found that Plaintiff can transition to other substantial gainful activity, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability for purposes of the Social Security Act. (Id. ¶ 10, R. 33.)

         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 erred because he did not properly evaluate the medical expert opinion evidence when assessing Plaintiff's RFC. Plaintiff also contends the ALJ's discussion of Plaintiff's subjective complaints is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ did not accurately characterize the evidence of record, and unreasonably relied on Plaintiff's request for unemployment benefits after her alleged onset date.

         In his discussion of Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ discussed in some detail Plaintiff's alleged disability, and addressed the symptoms and the limits resulting from obesity (postural and environmental limitations), and major depressive disorder and personality disorder (simple work, adjustment, judgment and social limitations). (R. 28-30.) Although Plaintiff reported she suffers from significant anxiety, social discomfort, and mood instability, which impacted her reliability as a cashier at Walmart, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's subjective report considerably overstated the degree of limitation Plaintiff actually experienced. The ALJ observed that Plaintiff has good function regarding the activities of daily living; she performed the typical activities required of independent living and engaged in relatively demanding family-oriented activity, including home schooling children, participating in homeschool cooperative activities with others, caring for her parents, and attending school, sport, and church events. (R. 30.)

         The ALJ also considered expert opinion concerning Plaintiff's ability to engage in vocational activity. The ALJ gave great weight to the opinion of Donna Gates, Ph.D., who reported that Plaintiff likely could relate adequately to others, manage work stress, function independently on simple tasks, and maintain personal appearance. (Ex. 6F; R. 30-31.) The ALJ concluded that the opinion offered by Dr. Gates was more reliable than that of provider Gayle Knee, LCSW, who opined that Plaintiff would be unreliable and would not interact with others without undue distraction. (Ex. 14F.) The ALJ concluded that Ms. Knee's treatment records and Plaintiff's daily activities did not support her conclusion. (R. 31.) Finally, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's request for unemployment benefits after her alleged onset date, while not dispositive, was at least suggestive of Plaintiff's subjective belief that she could engage in work activity. (R. 30.)

         A. ...

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