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Lori J. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Maine

September 4, 2019

LORI J., Plaintiff
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant


          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 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).

         Following 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.

         The Administrative Findings

          The Commissioner's final decision is the January 22, 2018 decision of the Administrative Law Judge. (ALJ Decision, ECF No. 7-3.)[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, 416.920.

         The ALJ 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.)

         When 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.)

         Based 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.)[2]

         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).


          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.

         The 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. (R. 109.)

         Dr. 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. ...

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