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Valari M. v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

September 10, 2019

VALARI M., Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION COMMISSIONER, Defendant.

          ORDER

          JON D. LEVY CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         Valari M. challenges the final administrative decision of the Social Security Administration Commissioner-the September 25, 2017, decision of the administrative law judge (“ALJ”)-which determined that she is not disabled and denied her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Valari M. seeks remand on the basis that the ALJ's determination of her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is flawed and undermines the ALJ's conclusion that Valari M. is capable of performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. For the reasons that follow, I conclude that remand is warranted.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The ALJ's decision tracks the familiar five-step sequential evaluation process for analyzing social security disability claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (West 2019). The claimant carries the burden of production on the first four steps, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner at Step 5. Purdy v. Berryhill, 887 F.3d 7, 9-10 (1st Cir. 2018). The five steps proceed as follows:

1) if the applicant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity, the application is denied; 2) if the applicant does not have, or has not had within the relevant time period, a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the application is denied; 3) if the impairment meets the conditions for one of the “listed” impairments in the Social Security regulations, then the application is granted[.]

Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001). If the impairment does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must, as an interim step, determine the claimant's RFC, § 404.1520(e), which is the most a claimant can still do despite their limitations.§ 16.945(a)(1). The RFC is used to assess the two final steps:

4) if the applicant's “residual functional capacity” is such that he or she can still perform past relevant work, then the application is denied; 5) if the applicant, given his or her residual functional capacity, education, work experience, and age, is unable to do any other work, the application is granted.

Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5.

         The first three steps are not at issue here. At Step 1, the ALJ determined that Valari M. has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of her disability. The ALJ next determined, at Step 2, that Valari M. has the severe impairments of inflammatory osteoarthritis, affective disorder, and anxiety disorder. She concluded that Valari M.'s other impairments-opioid dependence, hyperlipidemia, gastroesophageal reflux disease, history of ankle surgery, palpitations, and spine disorder-are not severe. At Step 3, the ALJ determined that Valari M.'s impairments do not meet and are not the medical equivalent of a listed impairment, either alone or in combination. In assessing the severity of Valari M.'s mental impairments, the ALJ concluded that Valari M. has moderate limitations in both understanding, remembering, or applying information; and in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace.

         Because the ALJ concluded that Valari M.'s impairments do not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the ALJ proceeded to assess Valari M.'s RFC. The ALJ concluded that Valari M. has the RFC to perform light work, except that she imposed additional physical restrictions and crafted the following mental RFC: “The claimant is able to perform simple routine tasks and make simple work-related decisions.” ECF No. 10-2 at 23. In reaching her RFC finding, the ALJ discussed the relevant evidence and the weight that she accorded it, beginning with Valari M.'s own testimony. The ALJ found that Valari M.'s “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [her] symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record, ” and only accorded those statements weight to the extent they were consistent with other evidence. ECF No. 10-2 at 25.

         With respect to the medical opinion evidence in the record, the ALJ gave the greatest weight to the testimony of medical expert Alan Duby, M.D., who testified at Valari M.'s administrative hearing that her widespread body pain is caused by her inflammatory arthritis. The ALJ accorded little weight to the opinion of Dr. Nicholas Rehagen, Ph.D., an examining psychologist whose opinion the ALJ summarized, in relevant part, as follows:

Dr. Rehagen . . . opined . . . that the claimant does not appear to have the ability to perform work-related activities on a sustained basis primary [sic] due to severe chronic pain and accompanying depression and anxiety; that she has impaired ability to maintain pace, concentration, and focus primarily due to chronic back and leg pain; that her chronic pain impacts her ability to deal with stressors . . . and that she may have difficulty with reliability due to chronic pain.

Id. at 28. The ALJ also accorded little weight to the opinion of Richard DeCarolis, D.O., Valari M.'s primary care physician. Dr. DeCarolis opined that Valari M.'s chronic back pain prevents her from maintaining gainful employment and that she is unable to engage in physically demanding labor. Finally, the ALJ accorded little weight to the State agency medical consultants' physical and mental assessments because Valari M.'s impairments had worsened after those assessments were made.

         The ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert in her analysis of the final two steps. At Step 4, the ALJ found that Valari M. is unable to perform any past relevant work. At Step 5, the ALJ found that Valari M. is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy based on the vocational expert's testimony that a person with Valari M.'s RFC can perform the light and sedentary occupations of parking lot cashier, call out operator, and printed circuit assembly inspection touch up screener. Accordingly, the ALJ found that ...


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