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Shawn M. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Maine

July 16, 2019

SHAWN M., Plaintiff
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant



         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 February 20, 2018 decision of the Administrative Law Judge. (ALJ Decision, ECF No. 9-2, R. 10.)[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 severe, but non-listing-level impairments consisting of lumbar degenerative disc disease, alcoholic liver disease, affective disorder, and borderline intellectual function. (R. 13.) According to the ALJ, the impairments restrict Plaintiff to light work, occasional ramps, stairs, ladders, stooping, kneeling, and crouching; preclude work at heights or with concentrated exposure to vibration; and permit unskilled work involving occasional decision making and public interaction. (R. 15.) The ALJ found Plaintiff cannot perform past relevant work, but he can transition to other work in the national economy, including the representative jobs of hand packer, bench assembler, printer circuit board screener, and bench worker. (R. 18-20.) The ALJ thus determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 20.)

         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 in his assessment of Plaintiff's mental impairment. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe mental impairments consist of affective disorder and borderline intellectual function. (R. 13.) According to Plaintiff, his mental health disorders also include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and panic disorder, and his affective disorder is “major depression, moderate.”[2] (R. 6.) Plaintiff contends the ALJ improperly failed to find at step 2 of the process that Plaintiff's general anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder constitute severe impairments. (Statement of Errors at 3.) Plaintiff also argues the RFC finding is unsupportable insofar as it fails to include “restrictions which address the Plaintiff's inability to concentrate on even simple work tasks” and “inability to maintain adequate work attendance.” (Id. at 11.)

         A. 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.

         At step 2, medical evidence is required to support a finding of severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521. See also Social Security Ruling 96-3p (“Symptoms, such as pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, weakness, or nervousness, will not be found to affect an individual's ability to do basic work activities unless the individual first establishes by objective medical evidence (i.e., signs and laboratory findings) that he or she has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) and that the impairment(s) could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged symptom(s).”) (citation omitted). A diagnosis, standing alone, does not establish that the diagnosed impairment would have more than a minimal impact on the performance of work activity. Dowell v. Colvin, No. 2:13-cv-00246-JDL, 2014 WL 3784237, at *3 (D. Me. July 31, 2014). Moreover, even severe impairments may be rendered 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, aff'd, 2009 WL 361193.

         Plaintiff alleged an onset of disability of December 2014. (Fact Sheet, ECF No. 13-1.) The record includes the treatment records of Katherine Page, MSW, CSW, who began treating Plaintiff in March 2016, with whom Plaintiff counseled for depression, post-traumatic distress disorder, panic attacks, and anxiety. (Exs. 10F, 15F, 16F, 18F, 19F.) Ms. Page diagnosed significant depression and anxiety, periodic panic attacks, and agoraphobia. Consulting examiner James Werrbach, Ph.D., who saw Plaintiff in August 2016, diagnosed Plaintiff with post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and major depressive episode. (Ex. 8F.) Consulting examiner Mary Burkhart, Ph.D., who reviewed the record (including Dr. Werrbach's report and Ms. Page's treatment notes through November 2016) in connection with Plaintiff's request for ...

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