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Figueroa v. Commissioner of Social Security

February 25, 2008

RE: FIGUEROA
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William J. Martini Judge

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. FEDERAL BLDG. & U.S. COURTHOUSE 50 WALNUT STREET, P.O. BOX 419 NEWARK, NJ 07101-0419 (973) 645-6340

LETTER OPINION

Dear Counsel:

Plaintiff Aida Figueroa ("Figueroa") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, seeking review of a final determination by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The Commissioner supports a reversal and remand for further proceedings. Figueroa argues in favor of a reversal and remand merely for the calculation of benefits. For the reasons articulated below, Figueroa's petition is granted in part and denied in part, and the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Background

Figueroa is a forty-year-old woman with a documented history of mental health problems reaching back to 1996 as well as a history of back pain and arthritis of the knee. (R. 23.) Figueroa applied for SSI benefits on March 25, 2003 alleging disability resulting from depression and a herniated disc as of December 30, 2002. (R. 79; Pl.'s Br. 2.) The application was denied, and a request for reconsideration was also denied. (R. 50-52.) At Figueroa's request, a hearing to review the application was held before Administrative Law Judge Dennis O'Leary ("ALJ") on October 28, 2004. (R. 234.) The ALJ denied Figueroa's application on January 17, 2004. (R. 39-46.) After Figueroa's timely appeal, the Appeals Counsel vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the case to the ALJ for further development of the record, and more specifically, to "obtain additional evidence concerning the claimant's musculoskeletal and mental impairments," "give further consideration to the claimant's maximum residual functional capacity," and "obtain evidence from a vocational expert." (R. 48-49.)

On November 17, 2005, a second hearing was held before the ALJ. (R. 258.) The ALJ again denied Figueroa's application on January 5, 2006. (R. 33.) In explaining his decision, the ALJ evaluated the evidence by applying the familiar five-step analysis for determinations of disability claims. (R. 28.) First, the ALJ found that Figueroa had not engaged in any substantial activity since her alleged onset date. (R. 28.) Second, he found that Figueroa suffered from several severe impairments, including chronic lower back pain with disc herniation, major depression, anxiety, and arthritis of the knee with post-arthroscopic surgery. (R. 28-29.) At the third step, the ALJ determined that none of these impairments met or equaled in severity the Listing of Impairments located at Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4 (hereinafter"Listing"). (R. 29.) Then, at the fourth step, he found that Jones retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work involving the lifting and carrying of up to ten pounds occasionally and five pounds frequently; standing and walking up to two hours in an eight-hour day; and sitting up to six hours in an eight-hour day. (R. 32.) In addition, he found that Figueroa's non-exertional limitations, including mild restriction of the activities of daily living, mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning, moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, did not significantly compromise her ability to perform sedentary work as long as she had no contact with the public and only limited contact with co-workers and supervisors. (R. 32-33.) At the fifth and final step, the ALJ concluded, based on his factual findings and the testimony of a vocational expert, that Figueroa could perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy including, but not limited to, a dial marker, a document preparer, a bench hand, and a check weigher. (R. 33.) The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's second decision on July 28, 2006. (R. 8-11.)

Figueroa timely appeals the ALJ's ruling. She argues that substantial evidence exists in the record to support her disability application, and thus, her case should be reversed and remanded for a calculation of benefits. (Pl.'s Br. 39-40.) The Commissioner agrees that this case should be remanded, but argues that the appropriate remand is for "further administrative proceedings due to legal error." (Def.'s Br. 2.) Figueroa's appeal is now before the Court.

Standard of Review

This Court exercises plenary review over the Commissioner's legal conclusions and is bound by the Commissioner's factual findings if they are supported by substantial evidence. Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000). Substantial evidence "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather 'such relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (citation omitted); see also Woody v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 859 F.2d 1156, 1159 (3d Cir. 1988) (stating that substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla but may be less than a preponderance"). "Overall, the substantial evidence standard is a deferential standard of review." Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004). Thus, this Court's inquiry is whether the record, read in its entirety, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached by the Commissioner.

If substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, courts must affirm the decision. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). If the decision is not supported by substantial evidence, then courts "may, under 42 U.S.C. § 406(g) affirm, modify or reverse the [Commissioner's] decision with or without a remand to the [Commissioner] for a rehearing." Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.3d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984). An award of benefits is appropriate when "the administrative record of the case has been fully developed and when substantial evidence on the record as a whole indicates that the claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits." Id. at 222.

Discussion

The focus of the Court's review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits in this case is narrowed by the positions of the parties. The Commissioner, in his brief, requests a voluntary reversal and remand of this case for further proceedings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g). Figueroa, although in agreement regarding the reversal of the Commissioner's decision, argues in favor of a remand only for the purpose of calculating benefits. In the alternative, Figueroa seeks a remand to the ALJ for a reassessment of Figueroa's claim. Thus, it is this Court's obligation to determine the narrow issue of whether the record, as currently constituted, has been fully developed and whether substantial evidence ...


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