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Amanda G. ex rel Christopher B. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Maine

August 27, 2019

AMANDA G., ex rel Christopher B. Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income appeal raises the question of whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) supportably found that the Claimant Christopher B., now deceased, retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform substantial gainful activity and was capable of return to past relevant work as a call center supervisor.[1] The Plaintiff seeks remand on the grounds that the ALJ erred in giving only partial weight to the medical expert opinion evidence of the Claimant's treating rheumatologist. See Pl.'s Itemized Statement of Errors (“Statement of Errors”) 2-6 (ECF No. 10). I affirm.


         The Commissioner's final decision is the February 12, 2018 decision of the ALJ. R. 1-3, 10-34.[2] The ALJ's decision tracks the five-step sequential evaluation process for analyzing social security disability claims. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         The ALJ found that the Claimant had the severe, but non-listing-level, [3]impairment of psoriatic arthritis. R. 16-18. The ALJ determined that the Claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that he could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. R. 19. The ALJ further found that the Claimant's RFC allowed him to perform past relevant work as a call center supervisor. R. 27. The ALJ therefore concluded that the Claimant was not disabled during the relevant period. R. 28.

         In determining RFC, the ALJ first considered the Claimant's reported symptoms and his medical records. R. 19-24. Second, the ALJ evaluated the opinions of two state agency medical consultants, two consulting medical examiners, and two of the Claimant's treating physicians. R. 24-27. Relevant to this appeal is the ALJ's decision to give only partial weight to the opinion of the treating rheumatologist, Dr. Lance Feller.


         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. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996) (per curiam); Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1987) (per curim). 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). “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) (citation omitted). An ALJ may accept parts of an expert opinion and reject others, with adequate explanation. See Evangelista v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 826 F.2d 136, 144 (1st Cir. 1987) (ALJ may “piece together the relevant medical facts from the findings and opinions of multiple physicians.”)


         The Plaintiff argues that the ALJ made a number of errors when deciding to afford Dr. Feller's opinion only partial weight. Statement of Errors 2-6.

         Dr. Feller, the Claimant's treating rheumatologist, submitted an assessment of the Claimant's ability to do work-related activities on a day to day basis. R. 309-10. In that assessment, he opined that the Claimant could never lift or carry over 20 pounds, that he could lift between 5 to 20 pounds occasionally (up to 1/3 of the time), and that he could lift 0-5 pounds frequently (between 1/2 and 2/3 of the time). R. 309. Dr. Feller noted that the Claimant's “joint damage due to inflammation” supported his lifting/carrying assessment. R. 309. Dr. Feller further found that the Claimant could stand for 2-3 hours of an 8 hour workday but not for more than 20 minutes at a time, and that the Claimant could sit for 5 hours of an 8 hour workday but not for more than 30 minutes at a time. R. 309. Dr. Feller opined that the Claimant had certain postural limitations: he could never balance or crawl but he could occasionally climb, bend, stoop, crouch, and kneel. R. 310. Dr. Feller assessed the Claimant's manipulative activities as being able to reach and push/pull occasionally and that he could feel and handle frequently. R. 310. Finally, Dr. Feller imposed environmental limitations of heights, chemicals, fumes, moving machinery, temperature extremes, and vibration. R. 310.

         In the portion of his opinion dealing with Dr. Feller's assessment, the ALJ wrote:

I give partial weight to the August, 2016, Treating Source Statement of the claimant's rheumatologist, Lance S. Feller, M.D., who provided a similar RFC to that of Dr. Powell, [4] except that he limited the claimant to 2-3 hours of standing and walking and 5 hours of sitting in an 8-hour workday, stated that the claimant can frequently handle and feel, and provided some different environmental limitations (Ex. 16B/9, 10). Dr. Feller specializes in rheumatology and has personally treated the claimant over time (id.). His overall light lifting restrictions and postural activities are generally consistent with the evidence of record as a whole, as detailed herein, and his additional postural restrictions are nonmaterial, as they would not affect the claimant's ability to return to his past relevant work, nor would they significantly erode the unskilled light occupational base (id.). However, Dr. Feller did not provide adequate narrative in support of his limitations, having merely described that the claimant has psoriatic arthritis with “joint damage due to inflammation” (id.). As detailed above, although the claimant has had joint pain and swelling upon physical examinations, this is in the context of significant noncompliance and flares when he is off of his ...

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