United States District Court, D. Maine
REPORT AND RECOMMENDED DECISION
C. Nivison U.S. Magistrate Judge
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 past relevant work (mail sorting).
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).
a review of the record, and after consideration of the
parties' arguments, I recommend the Court vacate the
administrative decision and remand for further proceedings.
Commissioner's final decision is the January 22, 2018
decision of the Administrative Law Judge. (ALJ Decision, ECF
No. 7-3.) The ALJ's decision tracks the familiar
five-step sequential evaluation process for analyzing social
security disability claims, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520,
found that Plaintiff has severe, but non-listing-level mental
health impairments consisting of dysthymia, major depressive
disorder, general anxiety disorder, and an unspecified
neurocognitive disorder. The ALJ did not include personality
disorder with dependent and obsessive traits and a
“social anxiety disorder” as severe impairments,
but the ALJ considered the longitudinal record of mental
health diagnoses and treatment when formulating
Plaintiff's RFC. (R. 120-121, 125-127.)
considering the degree to which Plaintiff's medically
determinable impairments impact Plaintiff's vocational
capacity, the ALJ found Plaintiff's subjective report
“partially consistent with and supported by the
evidence of record, ” referencing diagnostic evidence
of neurological deficits, low frustration tolerance, and
frequent irritability. (R. 124, citing Exs. 7F, 13F.)
on her review of the record, the ALJ found Plaintiff to have
the mental RFC for simple work, basic decisions, simple and
routine changes, and supervisory and coworker interaction,
but no public interaction. (R. 123.) The ALJ gave significant
weight to the consultative examination report of Jonathan
Freedman, Psy.D. (Ex. 2F), and the neuropsychological
evaluation report of Anthony Podraza, M.S., Ph.D. (Ex. 13F).
She also gave significant weight to the opinions of
Disability Determination Services consultants David Houston,
Ph.D. (Ex. 1A), and Leigh Haskell, Ph.D. (Ex. 3A), concluding
that their views were supported by the record and that the
more recent evidence did not contradict their findings. (R.
127, 129.) Ultimately, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform
past relevant work as a mail sorter and determined Plaintiff
was not disabled. (R. 129-130.)
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 at step 2 because the ALJ did
not properly assess as severe Plaintiff's social anxiety
disorder and personality disorder. (Statement of Errors at
1-6.) Plaintiff further argues the ALJ erred in the RFC
finding by failing to weigh properly the expert opinion
evidence, and by failing to recognize the need for a
limitation on Plaintiff's ability to interact with
supervisors and coworkers. (Id. at 10-18.) Plaintiff
also observes that the record of mental health treatment
expanded significantly following the Disability Determination
Services review and that the ALJ, therefore, should not have
given weight to the opinions of the Disability Determination
Services consultative experts.
Disability Determination Services consultants considered
Plaintiff's records as of September 2015 (initial) and
March 2016 (reconsideration). In the initial review,
performed with the benefit of a psychiatric consultative
examination by Dr. Freedman (Ex. 2F), Dr. Houston deemed
Plaintiff to have a severe affective disorder with moderate
difficulties maintaining concentration, persistence, and
pace, but with the ability to understand, remember, and carry
out simple instructions and tasks, and adapt to simple,
routine changes. (Ex. 1A, R. 89, 91-93.) Upon
reconsideration, Dr. Haskell identified affective disorder
and anxiety-related disorder as severe, with moderate
difficulty maintaining social functioning and maintaining
concentration, persistence, and pace. (Ex. 3A, R. 104.) Dr.
Haskell noted the assessment of Dr. Freedman that
Plaintiff's ability to understand, follow instructions,
and remember information were suitable for employment at
simple tasks (R. 107-108), and assessed a marked social
restriction that precludes work with the public, as well as
moderate impairment as to supervisors and coworkers. Dr.
Haskell concluded Plaintiff's ability to interact with
coworkers and supervisors was “adequate, ” but
opined that she would do better with a small group or on
independent work. (R. 108.) Concerning concentration,
persistence, and pace, Dr. Haskell considered Plaintiff able
to adapt to simple, routine changes and make basic decisions.
Freedman's consultative examination record includes
Plaintiff's report of anxiety, depression, learning
disability, panic attacks and memory loss. (Ex. 2F, R. 335.)
Dr. Freedman found that Plaintiff had low average memory
processes, that Plaintiff lost the thread of the conversation
while talking, and that she was of low average intelligence.
(Id.) He noted Plaintiff was not actively in
counseling, but she was taking an anti-depressant; Plaintiff
reported that she had established a circle of friends at
work, but also cried at work due to frustration with her
performance. (R. 336.) Dr. Freedman determined that the
reliable test results were commensurate with others who
“are able to perform semi-skilled labor, ” and
that Plaintiff's sensitivity to criticism was “not
particularly high.” (R. ...