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Debbie T. v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

March 18, 2019

DEBBIE T., Plaintiff


          John C. Nivison U.S. Magistrate Judge

         On Plaintiff'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 did not have a severe impairment from her alleged onset date of January 1, 2010, through her date last insured, June 30, 2012, and continuing through September 30, 2014. Although the ALJ found Plaintiff had severe impairments from October 1, 2014, through the date of the decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) 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 August 23, 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.

         After determining that Plaintiff did not suffer from a severe impairment through her date last insured, the ALJ found that as of October 1, 2014, Plaintiff had severe, but non-listing-level impairments consisting of rheumatoid arthritis, left hip trochanteric bursitis, and spondylosis of the cervical and lumbar spine. (R. 16.) The ALJ concluded the impairments limited Plaintiff's work capacity, but that Plaintiff maintained the ability to perform light work, except that she had the ability to climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes and scaffolds no more than occasionally, and stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl occasionally. (R. 17.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff must avoid concentrated exposure to respiratory irritants. (Id.)

         With the assistance of the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a donut shop counter attendant, convenience store clerk, and cashier. (R. 21.) The ALJ, therefore, concluded Plaintiff was not under a disability from the date of the alleged onset (January 1, 2010) through the date of the decision.

         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 contends the ALJ erred when (1) she concluded Plaintiff did not suffer from a severe impairment before Plaintiff's date last insured; (2) she afforded little weight to the opinion of Roberta Goff, a nurse practitioner; and (3) she determined Plaintiff's statements regarding the intensity, persistence and effects of her symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence of record.

         A. Step 2 Finding

          Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred when she found that Plaintiff did not have a severe impairment before her date last insured because the opinions of the consultant experts, which opinions the ALJ gave great weight, reflect that Plaintiff “had a severe inflammatory arthritis impairment” before Plaintiff's date last insured. (Plaintiff's Statement of Errors at 7, ECF No. 13.)

         At step 2 of the sequential evaluation process, a claimant must demonstrate the existence of 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, an impairment is severe if it has more than a minimal impact on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities on a regular and continuing basis. Id. However, if error occurred at step 2, remand is only appropriate when the claimant can demonstrate that an omitted impairment imposes a restriction beyond the physical and mental limitations recognized in the Commissioner's RFC finding, and that the additional restriction is material to the ALJ's “not disabled” finding at step 4 or step 5. Soc ...

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