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Jennifer M. v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

March 21, 2019

JENNIFER M., Plaintiff


          John C. Nivison U.S. Magistrate Judge

         On Plaintiff'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 vacate the administrative decision and remand the matter for further proceedings.

         The Administrative Findings

         The Commissioner's final decision is the August 23, 2017 decision of the Administrative Law Judge. (ALJ Decision, ECF No. 6-2, R. 19.)[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.

         Relevant to the instant appeal, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe, but non-listing-level impairment of both shoulder joints. (R. 21-22, ¶¶ 3, 4.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff does not have the ability to perform the weight-bearing demands of light- or greater-exertion work, but she has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work, including work that involves frequent pushing, pulling, and overhead reaching with both upper extremities. (R. 24, ¶ 5.) Given this physical RFC, Plaintiff's vocational background (Plaintiff was age 42 on the date last insured and has a high school equivalency diploma), and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff can perform substantial gainful activity, including the representative jobs of quality control, assembly, and electronics worker. (R. 28-29, ¶¶ 7-9.) Defendant, therefore, denied Plaintiff's claim for disability benefits. (R. 1, 30.)

         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 he (1) did not find an additional severe impairment related to Plaintiff's left hand, (2) failed to find that Plaintiff's shoulder impairment equals a listing, (3) gave greater weight to the opinions of consultants rather than to the opinions of treatment providers in formulating Plaintiff's RFC, and (4) failed to give appropriate weight to Plaintiff's subjective report of symptoms.

         A. Hand Impairment - Step 2

         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. Socobasin v. Astrue, 882 F.Supp.2d 137, 142 (D. Me. 2012) (citing Bolduc v. Astrue, No. 09-CV-220-B-W, 2010 WL 276280, at *4 n. 3 (D. Me. Jan. 19, 2010) (“[A]n error at Step 2 is uniformly considered harmless, and thus not to require remand, unless the plaintiff can demonstrate how the error would necessarily change the outcome of the plaintiff's claim.”)).

         According to Plaintiff, beginning in 2007, Plaintiff has experienced chronic neuropathic pain in her left wrist and hand secondary to placement of an IV line in her hand. (Statement of Errors at 6, 16, citing Ex. 12F, R. 624-26, and Ex. 8F, R. 484; see also Ex. 11F, R. 600-602.) On April 14, 2017, Peter Esponnette, M.D., performed an independent medical examination at the request of Plaintiff's counsel. Dr. Esponnette opined that Plaintiff cannot perform “firm gripping” with her left hand. (R. 484.)

         The ALJ did not give weight to Dr. Esponnette's opinion to the extent it was inconsistent with the ALJ's RFC finding. (R. 26-27.) The ALJ did not credit Dr. Esponnette's finding regarding Plaintiff's grip strength, noting Dr. Esponnette's finding of 5/5 wrist and finger strength. (R. 27; see also R. 480.)

         Given the medical evidence of record, the ALJ's assessment of Dr. Esponnette's opinion was not error. First, the ALJ's observation regarding the internal inconsistency in Dr. Esponnette's findings regarding Plaintiff's hand strength is reasonable. Perhaps more importantly, there is no persuasive evidence to suggest that Dr. Esponnette's grip strength observation/finding had more than a minimal effect on Plaintiff's general ability to work or her ability to perform the sedentary jobs ...

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