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Angel Berrocal v. Michael J. Astrue

March 11, 2011


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



Plaintiff Angel Berrocal brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act, seeking review of a final determination by the Commissioner of SocialSecurity("Commissioner") denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits. For the following reasons, the Commissioner‟s decision will be AFFIRMED.


Plaintiff worked on a loading dock. He was injured on the job in August 2004. Thereafter, his condition deteriorated. He was laid off in September 2005. On April 7, 2006, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits, alleging disability from September 23, 2005. (Tr. at 26.) The claim was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. at 26.) Subsequently, on December 14, 2006, Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing. (Tr. at 26.) The hearing took place on September 12, 2006, via a video conference, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Dennis O‟Leary presiding in Newark, New Jersey. (Id.) On October 19, 2007, the ALJ denied Plaintiff‟s application. (Tr. at 32.) The Appeals Council affirmed the ALJ‟s decision on February 25, 2010. Thereafter, on May 3, 2010, Plaintiff filed his Complaint and Brief in this Court. (Compl. ¶ 4.) Because Plaintiff filed this action pro se, the Court has reviewed his claims liberally. Plaintiff filed a handwritten document that this Court construes as a brief. (Doc. No. 12.)


At the administrative level, a five-step process is used to determine whether an applicant is entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date of the alleged disability. Id. at §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If not, the ALJ moves to Step Two to determine if the claimant‟s alleged impairments qualify as "severe." Id. at §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant has a severe impairment or impairments, the ALJ inquires in Step Three as to whether the impairment or impairments meet or equal the criteria of any impairment found in the Code of Federal Regulation‟s Listing of Impairments. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, Part A. If so, the claimant is deemed disabled per se and the inquiry ends; if not, the ALJ moves on to Step Four. Id. at §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). In the Fourth Step, the ALJ decides whether, despite any severe impairment(s), the claimant retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform past relevant work. Id. at §§ 404.1520(e)-(f), 416.920(e)-(f). The claimant bears the burden of proof at each of these first four steps. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the SocialSecurity Administration to demonstrate that the claimant is capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy in light of the claimant‟s age, education, work experience, and RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g); Poulos v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 88, 91-92 (3d Cir. 2007).

The Third Circuit requires an ALJ to "set forth the reasons for his decision," so that the district court can conduct meaningful judicial review. Burnett v. Comm'r, 220 F.3d 112, 119 (3d Cir. 2000). The district court reviews the ALJ‟s application of law de novo;factual findings are reviewed to determine whether they are supported by substantial evidence in the record.


Plaintiff is a forty-seven year old male. He alleges that he suffers from constant severe back pain as well as depression resulting from his injured back. (Tr. at 37, 41, 47, 50, 55.) Plaintiff was employed for more than fifteen years in the receiving department of Caravan Products, Inc. (Tr. at 38.) Plaintiff‟s job required the heavy lifting of items weighing approximately fifty pounds on average. (Id.) Plaintiff asserts that he suffered a back injury in August of 2004, rendering him unable to lift heavy objects, unable to sit for more than one-half hour, unable to walk for more than 200 meters, and unable to drive a vehicle for more than thirty minutes. (Tr. at 40, 49--51, 55.) In September 2005, Caravan Products fired Plaintiff. (Tr. at 40.) Plaintiff subsequently enrolled in a local university and completed a bachelor‟s degree. (Tr. at 37, 46--47.) After receiving medical treatment, including steroid injections into his back on two occasions, Plaintiff‟s doctor informed him that he needed surgery. (Tr. at 45--46.) Plaintiff sought coverage from his wife‟s health insurance company. (Tr. at 44.) The insurance company declined to cover the cost of the surgery because the injury was work related. (Tr. at 43--44.) Thereafter, Plaintiff sought disability coverage in the Social Security system. (Id.)

Plaintiff claims he experienced back pain and suffered from resulting limitations. Some objective evidence, such as findings from medical doctors, supported Plaintiff‟s claim that he experienced pain. The ALJ reviewed Plaintiff‟s medical records during the course of his analysis. (Tr. at 30--31.) The ALJ explained that the record showed that a physical examination of Plaintiff indicated some level of pain causing Plaintiff some limitations. (Tr. at 30.) Plaintiff‟s treating physician, Arash Amami, M.D., in October 2004, however, reported that Plaintiff had no limitations consistent with the injury he alleged. (Id.) Additionally, the ALJ noted that subsequent physical examinations of Plaintiff, although documenting continued lower back pain, did not indicate a degree of pain consistent with the pain described by Plaintiff. (Id.) The examining doctors deemed Plaintiff "to have exaggerated [his] symptoms given the lack of any new or old compression on MRI films." (Id.) The examining doctors stated that, based on the relatively minimal MRI findings, Plaintiff did not even require surgery. (Id.) An examining physician, and also a State agency medical consultant, noted that, notwithstanding the evidence of a minimal back injury, Plaintiff did not appear to be in severe pain. (Tr. at 30--31.) Finally, two MRI scans, taken in 2004 and 2006, noted only very small bulges and a mild or shallow herniation, injuries which are not consistent with the degree of pain described by Plaintiff. (Tr. at 31.) Based on this evidence, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff‟s claim of impairment did not meet or equal the criteria of any impairment found in the C.F.R.‟s Listing of Impairments. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff failed to carry his burden at Step Three. The ALJ determined, at Step Four, that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of light work.

Plaintiff also complained of suffering from anxiety and depression caused by his back injury. The ALJ rejected this claim because Plaintiff neither sought nor received psychiatric treatment for his alleged anxiety and depression other than an examination prior to the commencement of his claim. (Id.) Moreover, the ALJ stated that Plaintiff‟s success in an academic environment strongly indicated that Plaintiff did not suffer a "severe mental impairment." Therefore, Plaintiff‟s claim in connection with anxiety and depression failed at Step Two. (Id.)


The Court has reviewed the ALJ‟s opinion. It is lucid, orderly, and reasoned. Unfortunately, Plaintiff‟s pro se filing is difficult to follow. As best as the Court can tell, Plaintiff asserts four errors in the ALJ‟s reasoning. This opinion will address each of these purported errors in turn. The Court also notes that Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ made other errors in his five-step analysis. In regard to these other purported errors, Plaintiff‟s arguments are entirely conclusory. Plaintiff fails to articulate any ...

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