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Theresa R. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Maine

October 23, 2019

THERESA R., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER ON SOCIAL SECURITY APPEAL

          Nancy Torresen, United States District Judge

         This Social Security Disability (“SSD”) appeal raises the question of whether the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) supportably found the Claimant capable of performing work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. The Claimant seeks remand on the bases that the ALJ's physical residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination was not supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ did not properly assess the Claimant's subjective statements. See Itemized Statement of Specific Errors (“Statement of Errors”) 4-17 (ECF No. 11). I reject the Claimant's challenges to the ALJ's determination, find no reversible error on her part, and, accordingly, affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         ADMINISTRATIVE FINDINGS

         Pursuant to the Commissioner's sequential evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Goodermote v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 5, 6-7 (1st Cir. 1982), the ALJ found, in relevant part, that: (1) the Claimant met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2020; (2) she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of March 30, 2015; (3) she had the severe impairments of total left hip replacement, bilateral adhesive capsulitis of the shoulders, cervical spondylosis, cervical radiculopathy, lumbar spondylosis, congenital spinal stenosis, obesity, and depression; (4) her impairments did not equal the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and (5) she had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except that she needed to be permitted to stretch and change position at her discretion, such as the freedom of a sit/stand option, throughout the day. Findings 1-5, R. 17-27.[1]Additionally, the ALJ found that the Claimant could only reach overhead occasionally, and that, considering her age (44 years old on her alleged disability onset date), education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform, Findings 5-10, R. 20-27. The ALJ concluded, therefore, that the Claimant had not been disabled from March 30, 2015, her alleged onset date of disability, through the date of the decision, December 6, 2017. Finding 10-11, R. 28-29. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, making the decision the final determination of the commissioner. R. 1-3; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The standard of review of the commissioner's decision is whether the determination made is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Manso- Pizarro v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996). In other words, the determination must be supported by such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion drawn. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981).

         If, as here, the ALJ reaches the Step 5 question of whether the claimant can perform work available in the national economy, the burden of proof shifts to the commissioner to show that the claimant can perform work other than her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Goodermote, 690 F.2d at 7. The record must contain substantial evidence in support of the commissioner's findings regarding the claimant's RFC to perform such other work. Rosado v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 807 F.2d 292, 294 (1st Cir. 1986).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Challenge to Physical RFC Determination

         The ALJ found that the Claimant retained the RFC to perform light work with the following additional physical limitations:

[T]he claimant must be permitted to stretch or change position at her discretion, such as the freedom of a sit/stand option, throughout the day. Additionally, the claimant can only reach overhead occasionally and should not be exposed in the workplace to extremes of hot or cold or humidity.

Finding 5, R. 20. The Claimant challenges that assessment on the basis that the ALJ erred in weighing the opinion evidence of her longtime primary care provider, Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (“APRN”) Abigail Olden. I find no error.

         In December 2016, APRN Olden opined that the Claimant could lift and carry less than ten pounds frequently or occasionally; sit for less than six hours total in an eight-hour workday; and stand/walk for less than two hours total in an eight-hour workday. R. 618, 620. She opined that the Claimant was limited in reaching overhead; could reach overhead, handle, finger, and feel less than two and a half hours per day; and would be unable to perform all postural functions except for occasional climbing of ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. R. 619-20. She concluded that, “[d]ue to chronic pain [and] depression I do not feel [the Claimant] could work [at] this time.” R. 621.

         The ALJ concluded that, “[w]hile the record supports just enough clinical and objective evidence to corroborate the reaching limitations, the rest of Nurse Olden's opinion stands in stark contrast to the longitudinal and substantive medical evidence.” R. 25. The Claimant contends that, although the ALJ stated that she was assigning partial weight to APRN Olden's opinion, she rejected the portion that she purported to adopt, and she failed to provide any valid reason for rejecting the remainder of the opinion. Statement of Errors 5-6.

         A. Standard

         It is the ALJ's responsibility to weigh medical evidence and opinions, and resolve any conflicts that exist. Barrientos v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 820 F.2d 1, 2 (1st Cir. 1987) (citing Lizotte v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 654 F.2d 127 (1st Cir. 1981)). The parties agree that APRN Olden did not qualify as an “acceptable medical source” pursuant to the regulations in effect at the time of the ALJ's decision, and, thus, the ALJ “was not required to supply ‘good reasons' for the weight given to her opinion.” John M. v. Berryhill, No. 17-452, 2018 WL 6272888, at *3 (D. Me. Nov. 30, 2018) (citing King v. Astrue, No. 09-337, 2010 WL 4457447, at *4 (D. Me. Oct. 31, 2010), rep. & rec. adopted, 2010 WL 4823921 (D. Me. Nov. 22, 2010) (ALJ not expressly required to supply “good reasons” for discounting the opinion of a source who is not an acceptable medical source)). “Instead, the ALJ was obliged only to explain the weight given to her opinion or otherwise ensure that the discussion of the evidence allows a claimant or subsequent reviewer to follow her reasoning.” Id. (citation and internal quotations and alterations omitted).[2]

         The ALJ met that standard here.

         B. Reaching Limitation

         As noted above, the ALJ explained that she had given APRN Olden's opinion weight only insofar as “the record supports just enough clinical and objective evidence to corroborate the reaching limitations.” R. 25. Nonetheless, the Claimant complains, the ALJ inexplicably failed to adopt APRN Olden's opinion that she could reach i ...


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