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Jason D. v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

April 17, 2019

JASON D., 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 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 December 21, 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 the following severe, but non-listing-level impairments: cervical degenerative disc disease; right knee chondromalacia of the patellofemoral joint, effusion, and baker's cyst; obesity; social anxiety; post-traumatic stress disorder; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; depression; and insomnia. (R. 12, ¶ 3.) The ALJ concluded that as the result of his impairments, Plaintiff has a residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work involving light exertion, frequent public interaction (not constant), frequent interaction with coworkers, independent work with only occasional instruction (meaning a position where Plaintiff's interaction with supervisors is no more than occasional), with no “tandem tasks.” (R. 15, ¶ 5.) Given the RFC, Plaintiff's age and vocational background, and after consideration of the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled because Plaintiff is able to perform substantial gainful activity consisting of jobs that exist in the national economy in significant numbers, including representative jobs of price marker, housekeeper, and laundry classifier. (R. 22-23, ¶¶ 7-11.)

         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's RFC finding is not reasonably supported by the medical expert opinion evidence and that the ALJ impermissibly judged matters entrusted to experts. Plaintiff also contends the ALJ did not adequately address the limiting effect of Plaintiff's severe obesity.

         A. Plaintiff's Physical RFC

         Plaintiff's severe physical impairments consist of cervical degenerative disc disease, impairment of the right knee, and BMI 39.9 obesity. The ALJ gave only partial weight to the opinions of the Disability Determination Services consulting physicians (Exs. 1A, R. 115-16; 2A, R. 129-30; 5A, 6A), who assessed a capacity for medium exertion with some occasional postural limitations. The consultants noted that Plaintiff's physical impairment involved head and neck pain. (R. 111, 125, 143.)

         In connection with his request for reconsideration of the initial denial, Plaintiff informed Defendant of his increasing bilateral knee pain. (R. 160.) The reconsideration consultant (Jose Rabelo, M.D.) noted the alleged physical impairment was head and neck pain, that there was no change since the last report, but also suggested new bilateral knee pain. (R. 164.) The medical records, however, include a December 2015 report of right knee pain coupled with a body mass index of 38.77. Additionally, the reconsideration record notes a right knee x-ray suggestive of medial tibiofemoral compartment degenerative change and possible joint effusion. (R. 166.) The reconsideration record further reflects that the physical RFC of “Medium eroded to LIGHT by Stooping and Crouching limited to occasionally” was affirmed.[2] (R. 169.)

         As part of their assessment, the reviewing consultants considered the February 2016 consultative examination report of Robert Phelps, Jr., M.D. (Ex. 7F.) Dr. Phelps assessed Plaintiff's report of right knee symptoms in addition to his preexisting impairments. (R. 636.) He observed that Plaintiff's mobility was “good within confines of the office, ” and that Plaintiff did not use an assistive device for ambulation, was able to squat and arise from the squatting position, had 5/5 strength of knees with pain on the right and good motion with no joint instability or swelling, no tenderness to palpation, pain with pressure against right patella, and patella-femoral joint compression ...

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