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Rankila v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

October 8, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          William M. Conley District Judge.

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff David Rankila seeks judicial review of a final determination that he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Rankila contends that remand is warranted because the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) failed to adequately account for his finding of a moderate limitation in concentration, persistence and pace (“CPP”) in formulating his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) for purposes of posing a hypothetical question to the vocational expert. Because the ALJ relied on the opinion of a medical expert in translating Rankila's CPP limitation into nonexertional limitations in his RFC, the court rejects plaintiff's challenge and will affirm the denial of benefits.


         Plaintiff David Rankila applied for social security disability benefits on September 29, 2014, claiming an alleged onset date of February 14, 2014. With a birth date of November 29, 1962, Rankila was “closely approaching advanced age” for the relevant period of his social security appeal. Rankila has past relevant work as a music teacher. He claimed disability was based on vestibular dysfunction, [2] vertigo and tinnitus, hearing loss, fatigue, concentration issues and anxiety. (AR 214.)

         ALJ Micah Pharris held an in-person hearing on April 13, 2017, in Duluth, Minnesota, at which plaintiff appeared personally and by counsel. As of the alleged onset date, the ALJ found that Rankila suffered from the following severe impairments: hearing loss with tinnitus and vestibular dysfunction (vertigo) and generalized anxiety disorder/anxiety. (AR 25.) Material to this appeal, the ALJ also found that Rankila had moderate limitations in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace. (AR 28.) In making this latter determination, the ALJ specifically considered the impact of Rankila's generalized anxiety on his CPP abilities, noting that: his “course of treatment for anxiety has been limited”; Rankila “testified that he took an anxiety pill as needed, once or twice per month”; he engaged in a number of activities from helping neighbors, to planning dinner, exercising, gardening, reading and spending time with families; and his neurological evaluations demonstrated “intact mental status.” (AR 28.) In considering this evidence, the ALJ expressly declined to find a marked limitation -- a finding that Rankila does not challenge on appeal.

         In still finding moderate CPP limitations, rather than only a mild limitation, the ALJ relied on the opinions of two state agency psychological consultants, Susan Donahoo, Psy.D. and David Tessler, Psy.D., both of whom found moderate CPP limitations with respect to Rankila's ability: “to carry out detailed instructions”; “to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods”; “to perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances”; and “to work in coordination with or in proximity to others without being distracted by them.” (AR 34 (ALJ stating that he placed great weight on these opinions); AR 76 (Donahoo's report); AR 89 (Tessler's report).)

         In providing a narrative explanation for this CPP limitation, Dr. Tessler stated that:

Claimant has the ability to maintain attention and concentration for periods of at least two hours duration. Claimant may have occasional interruptions from psychologically based symptoms, but has the ability to complete a normal workday and work week without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods.

(AR 90.) Dr. Donahoo similarly provided a narrative explanation for her opinion, stating that:

It is felt that a change in work environments is needed, but that he would likely still experience limitations in his ability to carry out detailed instructions, maintain CPP, work in proxim[i]ty to others (d/t noise distractions), work w/ the general public, and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors. These limitations are felt to be no more than moderate in severity, thus finding the clmnt to be capable of performing the basic mental demands of unskilled work.

(AR 77.)

         With respect to crafting an RFC, the ALJ adopted the following nonexertional limitations:

The individual may not work in an environment where the noise level is greater than “moderate” as that term is defined by the DOT. . . . The individual is limited to simple routine tasks; may have occasional superficial contact with supervisors; and may have no contact with coworkers, and members of the public. By superficial, I mean rated no lower than 8 on the Selected Characteristics of Occupations' people ratings and when I say “no contact” with coworkers, I don't mean that the individual cannot be in the same room as coworkers but, rather, that ...

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