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Wanda B. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Maine

July 24, 2019

WANDA B., Plaintiff
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDED DECISION

          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 affirm the administrative decision.

         The Administrative Findings

         The Commissioner's final decision is the December 20, 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.

         The ALJ found that as of December 31, 2012, the date last insured, Plaintiff had severe, but non-listing-level impairments consisting of degenerative disk disease, facet arthropathy and chronic pain. (R. 14.) The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff had a residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, with no more than occasional balancing, kneeling, crouching, crawling and stooping, with sitting limited to 5 hours in an 8-hour day and standing and walking limited to 4 hours in an 8-hour day. (R. 15.)

         The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a driver's education instructor, which job did not require Plaintiff to perform any work-related activities precluded by the RFC.

         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 effectively discounted all the relevant medical opinion evidence and, therefore, the ALJ's RFC assessment is not supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff also contends that, because a portion of the hearing transcript is inaudible, the Court cannot effectively evaluate the ALJ's decision and, therefore, remand is required.

         A. Medical Opinions

         Dr. Schuler's Mental RFC Assessment

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in discounting the mental RFC opinion of Carl Schuler, D.O. Dr. Schuler, Plaintiff's primary care physician for approximately 20 years, completed a “Mental Residual Functional Capacity Questionnaire, ” dated September 20, 2016. (R. 1129-34.) The form reflects that Dr. Schuler diagnosed Plaintiff with depression. (R. 1129.) He also assessed her “mental abilities and aptitudes needed to do unskilled work” as “[l]imited but satisfactory, ” with the exception of her ability to “[c]omplete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms, ” which he assessed as “[s]eriously limited, but not ...


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