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Patrick M. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Maine

August 23, 2019

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

          ORDER ON SOCIAL SECURITY APPEAL

          NANCY TORRESEN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income appeal raises the question of whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) supportably found that, despite the Claimant's severe impairments, he retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform substantial gainful activity. The Claimant seeks remand on the grounds that the ALJ erred in his assessment of the medical expert opinion evidence and that the ALJ's RFC finding is otherwise unsupported by the record. Compl. (ECF No. 1); Pl.'s Statement of Errors (ECF No. 12). Following a review of the record and after consideration of the parties' arguments, I AFFIRM the administrative decision.

         ADMINISTRATIVE FINDINGS

         The Commissioner's final decision is the May 2, 2018 decision of the ALJ. R. 146-159.[1] The ALJ's decision tracks the five-step sequential evaluation process for analyzing social security disability and supplemental security income claims, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         The ALJ found that the Claimant has severe, but non-listing-level, [2] depressive disorder, personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. R. 152. The ALJ determined that the Claimant retains the RFC to perform work at all exertional levels, with non-exertional limitations that allow him to, on a sustained, competitive basis, “(1) understand and remember simple instructions, (2) use judgment in making simple, work-related decisions, (3) respond appropriately with coworkers, supervisors, and [in] usual work situations not involving the public, and (4) adapt to routine changes in the work setting.” R. 154. The ALJ further found that the Claimant's RFC allows him to perform past relevant work as a concrete laborer or, alternatively, other work existing in significant numbers, including the representative job of cleaner. R. 158. The ALJ therefore concluded that the Claimant was not disabled during the relevant period. R. 158.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A court must affirm an administrative decision provided it 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 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

         The Claimant argues that the ALJ committed three errors in his assessment of the record that necessitate remand, specifically that (i) the ALJ failed to assign sufficient weight to opinion evidence from the Claimant's medication provider, Destry Oldham-Sibley, (ii) the ALJ erred in assigning any weight to the opinion of agency expert Dr. Thomas Knox, and (iii) the ALJ made a series of factual errors in his review of the record that undermine his RFC finding. Finding no error, I affirm.

         I. First Claim of Error

         The Claimant first argues that the ALJ erred in assigning little weight to Ms. Oldham-Sibley's March 21, 2018, Medical Source Statement. R. 788. In her statement, Ms. Oldham-Sibley opined that the Claimant was capable of understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions and had only mild limitations in his ability to make judgments on simple work-related decisions. R. 788. In contrast, Ms. Oldham-Sibley stated that the Claimant had marked limitations in his ability to understand, remember, carry out, or make judgments related to complex instructions or work-related decisions. R. 788. She found no limitations in the Claimant's ability to interact appropriately with supervisors, co-workers, and the public or to adapt to routine changes in the workplace. R. 789. Ms. Oldham-Sibley further reported that the Claimant's mental limitations would lead him to be off-task for 25% or more of an ordinary work schedule and to be absent from work four days or more per month. R. 791. She noted that the Claimant “avoids being around people, ” “isolates himself, avoids interaction, has low energy, ” “engages in self-harming behaviors, has urges to cut, []is preoccupied by suicidal ideation, . . . is chronically in low dysphoric mood, ” and “presents with depressive symptoms.” R. 789. When asked whether alcohol or substance misuse contributed to the Claimant's described limitations, she reported that “alcohol or drug use is not a presenting problem.” R. 789.

         The ALJ gave little weight to Ms. Oldham-Sibley's opinion that the Claimant would have a 25% absenteeism rate because he found that it conflicted with the Claimant's treatment records and demonstrated level of activity. R. 157. The ALJ also stated that “in view of her apparent ignorance of the claimant's marijuana use, ” he would not “give strong credence to [Ms. Oldham-Sibley's] assertion that drug use was ‘not a presenting problem.' ” R. 157.[3]

         I find the ALJ's assessment of Ms. Oldham-Sibley's opinion to be sound and supportable. Regarding the Claimant's potential absenteeism, as the ALJ noted, the Claimant routinely “attends appointments without truancy, including required visits with his probation officer and court mandated group therapy, despite the lack of a drivers' license.” R. 152, 155, 714-87, 894, 898. The ALJ also supportably observed that the Claimant's activity level is inconsistent with the conclusion that he would routinely be unable to attend work. The record shows that the Claimant has: (i) retained a small group of long-term friends with whom he spends time when his treatment center is closed, (ii) pursued two romantic relationships, and (iii) regularly-albeit not daily-attended treatment venues where he has interacted with other clients and taken on a variety of volunteer activities without issue. R. 153, 155, 411, 414, 419, 422, 599, 615, 620, 710, 716, 755, 777, 782, 894. Given this evidence, the fact that the Claimant has at times failed to meet his voluntary treatment goal of spending six hours a day, five days a week at a treatment center did not preclude the ALJ from concluding that the Claimant could and would attend work as required.[4]

         As to the Claimant's ability to remain on task, the Claimant's treatment records repeatedly report his concentration level as “fair” or “good, ” and, as the ALJ found, the Claimant retains the degree of concentration or persistence necessary to carry out simple daily tasks such as shopping, counting change, running errands, paying bills, and managing a bank account. R. 615, 620, 626, 630, 634, 638, 643, 649, 794, 799. Consistent with this evidence, agency psychologist Dr. Richard Parker concluded that the Claimant was capable of simple, repetitive work after a one-on-one consultative examination. R. 600. The Claimant points to some other evidence, specifically notes from the Claimant's caseworker Katie Moran, that suggests he has difficulty concentrating. R. 418, 423. As with Ms. Oldham-Sibley's testimony, it was the ALJ's duty to weigh this evidence against the entire record. Rodriguez, 647 F.2d at 222 (“[T]he resolution of conflicts in the evidence . . . is for [the ALJ], not for the doctors or for the courts.”); see also Malaney v. Berryhill, No. 2:16-cv-00404-GZS, 2017 WL 2537226, at *2 (D. Me. June 11, 2017) (“The mere fact that a claimant can point to evidence of record supporting a different conclusion does not, in itself, warrant ...


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