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Laurie H. v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

April 4, 2019

LAURIE H., 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 has a severe impairment, 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 August 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 a severe, but non-listing-level impairment of bipolar disorder. The ALJ concluded Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with certain non-exertional limitations. According the ALJ, Plaintiff “must avoid a variety of instructions or tasks, but is able to understand to carry out simple one or two step instructions and is able to understand to carry out detailed but uninvolved written or oral instructions involving a few concrete variables in or from standardized situations; [Plaintiff] would be able to work in 2-hour blocks of time within this range of work over a normal workday and workweek; cannot work with the public, but can work with superiors and co-workers and is able to adapt to simple changes.” (ALJ Decision ¶ 5, R. 16.)

         Considering Plaintiff's RFC, including the non-exertional limitations, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. After consideration of the testimony of a vocational expert and in accordance with the expert's testimony, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could perform the representative jobs of laundry sorter, cleaner housekeeper, and dishwasher, which jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy. The ALJ, therefore, found Plaintiff was not disabled.

         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 (1) at step 2, when she failed to find Plaintiff had other severe impairments, including ADHD, anxiety, and PTSD, (2) in her evaluation of the medical opinions in the formation of Plaintiff's RFC, and (3) in her assessment of Plaintiff's subjective complaints.

         A. Step 2 Findings

         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. A severe impairment, however, may be deemed non-severe through the ameliorative influence of medication and other forms of treatment. Parsons v. Astrue, No. 1:08-cv-218-JAW, 2009 WL 166552 at *2 n.2 (Jan. 23, 2009), aff'd 2009 WL 361193 (Feb. 12, 2009).

         Finally, 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. 1:09-cv- 220-JAW, 2010 WL 276280, at *4 n. 3 (D. Me. Jan. 19, 2010) (“[A]n error at Step 2 is uniformly considered ...

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