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Rebecca C. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Maine

July 16, 2019

REBECCA C., Plaintiff
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDED DECISION

          John C. Nivison, U.S. Magistrate Judge

         On Plaintiff's application for 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 April 13, 2018 decision of the Administrative Law Judge. (ALJ Decision, ECF No. 6-2.)[1] The ALJ's decision tracks the familiar five-step sequential evaluation process for analyzing social security disability claims, 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe, but non-listing-level impairments consisting of borderline intellectual functioning (BIF) and anxiety. (R. 12.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff has a residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium work, to understand and remember simple instructions and tasks, and to carry out simple tasks for two-hour blocks over the course of a normal workday/workweek, interact with co-workers and supervisors, and have occasional contact with the public, as well as adapt to routine changes. (R.15.)

         Plaintiff has no past relevant work. After considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, as well as the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including laundry worker, hand packer and table bench assembler. (R. 19.)

         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).

         Discussion

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in his consideration of the assessment of Plaintiff's primary care provider (Myra Brink, P.A.) and in his reliance on the opinions of the state agency consultants (May Burkhart, Ph.D. and Robert Campion, M.D.) Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ did not properly consider her testimony regarding the nature and severity of her impairments.

         Ms. Brink completed a one-page Medical Assessment of Ability to Do Work-Related Activities form. (R. 542.) On the form, Ms. Brink's answered “no” to questions regarding Plaintiff's ability, in a normal work setting on a sustained, 40 hour per week basis, to understand, remember and carry out simple instructions; to respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work situations; and to deal with changes in a routine work setting. (Id.) In the “Remarks” section of the form, Ms. Brink stated that Plaintiff “would have difficulty following directions and would easily get off task…. and working in a group setting would be very difficult.” (Id.)

         The ALJ noted that Ms. Brink does not qualify as an “acceptable medical source” as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 416.902, but rather as an “other source” under 20 C.F.R. § 416.913(d).[2] (R. 17.) As an “other source, ” Ms. Brink could not establish the existence of medically determinable impairments pursuant to then-effective Social Security Ruling 06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939, at *2 (Aug. 1, 2006).[3] Other sources may, however, be considered to show the severity of Plaintiff's impairments and how the impairments affect her ability to function. (Id.; see R. 17.) The ALJ gave some weight to Ms. Brink's opinion and characterized Ms. Brink's opinion concerning the severity of Plaintiff's mental limitations as “not consistent with the preponderance of medical evidence … as well as [Plaintiff's] own admission of activities of daily living.” (R. 17.)[4]

         The ALJ's assessment of Ms. Brink's opinion, when considered with the opinions of the state agency consultants, the medical record, and the evidence of Plaintiff's activity level, is supportable.[5] The ALJ supportably gave great weight to the mental RFC opinions of state agency consultants. Drs. Burkhardt and Campion determined that Plaintiff can understand and remember simple instructions and carry out simple tasks for two-hour blocks over the course of a normal workday/week. (R. 83-84, 96.) They observed that she attends to her own personal care, prepares simple meals, does light household chores, drives, and shops. (R. 81, 94.) Both also noted that Plaintiff ...


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