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Barbara M. v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

February 15, 2019

BARBARA M., Plaintiff



         On Plaintiff Barbara M.'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, found that Plaintiff has severe impairments, but retains the functional capacity to perform substantial gainful activity consisting in a subset of the light-duty job base. 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 vacate the administrative decision and remand for further proceedings.

         The Administrative Findings

         The Commissioner's final decision is the August 2, 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 Plaintiff has severe, but non-listing-level impairments consisting of bilateral osteoarthritis of the knees, status post-wrist fracture (non-dominant), and shoulder dysfunction (non-dominant). (Id. ¶¶ 3, 4.) The ALJ also found that despite her impairments, Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to meet the weight demands of light work, except that Plaintiff cannot stand for more than two hours in an eight-hour workday and can only occasionally push, pull, reach, and handle with her non-dominant left upper extremity.[2] (Id. ¶ 5.)

         With the RFC as determined by the ALJ, Plaintiff cannot perform past relevant work. (Id. ¶ 6.) The ALJ, however, determined that Plaintiff can transition to other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including the representative job of cashier within the specific context of parking lot attendants (Dictionary of Occupational Titles # 211.462-010 / 23, 000 jobs) and self-service gas stations (DOT # 211.462-010 / 240, 000 jobs), and also the job of toll collector (DOT # 211.462-038 / 10, 000 jobs). (Id. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff has a “limited” education (Id. ¶ 8), and was “closely approaching advanced age” when the ALJ issued her decision. (Id. ¶ 7.)

         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 when she failed to acknowledge that the RFC finding describes a sedentary work capacity rather than a restricted light work capacity, redefined the cashier job in a way that does not contemplate the actual demands regarding standing, did not ask the vocational expert to discuss the degree of erosion of the light-exertion job base, improperly distinguished a subset of cashier jobs, did not consider the fact that many toll collector jobs are part-time, and failed to acknowledge that cashier jobs require frequent reaching and handling. (Statement of Errors, ECF No. 13.)

         The ALJ found Plaintiff to be “restricted [] to a range of light work that involve[s] standing and walking for no more than two hours per day.” (R. 18.) In forming the RFC, the ALJ gave great weight to the opinion of consulting expert Phyllis Sandell, M.D. (R.19, discussing Ex. 14A, R. 157-59.) Dr. Sandell concluded that Plaintiff occasionally can manage weights up to 20 pounds, and frequently manage weights of up to 10 pounds, but would have to work from a seated position for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday.[3] (Id.)

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ improperly characterized Plaintiff's RFC as a restricted light-duty work capacity rather than a sedentary work capacity. Plaintiff contends the error is prejudicial because, due to her age, she would be disabled under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the “Grid”) if the ALJ recognized that Plaintiff was limited to a sedentary work capacity.[4] (Statement of Errors at 3-4.) Defendant does not contest the assertion that Plaintiff's age placed her in an advantaged grid category, but Defendant argues the light-work classification was a supportable finding. (Response at 2-4, & 9 n.3.)

         At step 5, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the jobs a claimant can perform exist in the national economy in significant numbers, giving particular attention to the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), (g)(1), 416.920(a)(4)(v), (g)(1); Goodermote v. Sec'y of HHS, 690 F.2d 5, 7 (1st Cir. 1982). This burden is typically addressed through a combined reliance on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (a/k/a “the Grid”), 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, and the testimony of a vocational expert, who is asked to consider one or more hypothetical RFC findings. Goodermote, 690 F.2d at 7; Arocho v. Sec'y of HHS, 670 F.2d 374, 375 (1st Cir. 1982). “‘The Grid,' … consists of a matrix of the applicant's exertional capacity, age, education, and work experience. If the facts of the applicant's situation fit within the Grid's categories, the Grid ‘directs a conclusion as to whether the individual is or is not ...

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