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Carlos Alvarez, Jr v. Commissioner of the Social Security Administration

June 28, 2011

CARLOS ALVAREZ, JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Jerome B. Simandle

OPINION

SIMANDLE, District Judge:

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) which provides that the Court shall, pursuant to the procedures set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), review the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying Plaintiff Carlos Alvarez, Jr.'s application for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act.

At issue in this case is whether Alvarez's level of English proficiency required that an interpreter be provided for him in order to conduct a fair benefits hearing; whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") failed to accord the opinions of Alvarez's treating and consulting professionals the appropriate weight; and whether the ALJ's determination of Alvarez's credibility was proper. For the reasons explained below, although the Court finds that no interpreter was needed for Alvarez, the Court will vacate and remand the case for reconsideration, principally because the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinions of Nurse Ann Martin and Dr. Lewis A. Lazarus.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Carlos Alvarez, Jr., is a 48-year-old man, who was born in New York and raised in Camden, N.J. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 198.) He completed schooling through the eighth grade. (A.R. 29 ¶ 3.)*fn1 He testified that he was placed in special education during his schooling. (A.R. 29 ¶ 3.) He worked as a kitchen helper and porter for 15-20 years at some time prior to 2004. (A.R. 37.) He seeks Supplemental Security Income because he claims to be unable to work due to his anxiety disorder.

In order to be eligible for Supplemental Security Income, an individual must demonstrate that he or she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which has lasted, or can be expected to last, for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). A disabling physical or mental impairment is defined as "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(D). An individual will be determined to be under a disability only if his impairment is of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but also cannot, given his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

The Commissioner has promulgated regulations for determining disability that require application of a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.*fn2 It is the claimant's burden to show that he or she is severely impaired, and either that the severe impairment meets or equals a listed impairment and lasts for the requisite duration, or that it prevents the claimant from performing the claimant's past work. Wallace v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 722 F.2d 1150, 1153 (3d Cir. 1983). If he or she meets those burdens by a preponderance of the evidence, the Commissioner bears the burden of proving that work is available for the claimant: "Once a claimant has proved that he is unable to perform his former job, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that there is some other kind of substantial gainful employment he is able to perform." Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987). Ultimately, entitlement to benefits is dependent upon finding the claimant is incapable of performing work in the national economy.

Alvarez filed claims for disability benefits on March 31, 2004, alleging he was disabled beginning July 1, 1998 because of anxiety and nervousness. (A.R. 24.) The claims were denied initially on November 12, 2004, and again on reconsideration on April 13, 2005. (A.R. 44-46, 52.) Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an ALJ on May 27, 2005. (A.R. 56.)

A hearing was held on August 1, 2006. (A.R. 24.) The ALJ found that Alvarez had not engaged in substantial gainful activity at any time since March 31, 2004. (A.R. 25.) The ALJ also found that Alvarez suffers from three severe impairments: a depressive disorder, an anxiety-related disorder, and has a history of substance abuse (that was "not a significant factor material to the finding of disability."). ((A.R. 26.)*fn3

Because the ALJ concluded that none of the three impairments meets or equals a listed impairment, he assessed Alvarez's residual functional capacity. (A.R. 26-27.) In assessing Alzarez's residual functional capacity, the ALJ made a number of important findings. He found that there was no evidence any severe physical impairments. (A.R. 30.) And he found that the record shows that Alvarez can perform work involving simple, repetitive tasks and simple instructions. (A.R. 30.) The ALJ found that although Alvarez testified that he hears voices, feels isolated, and has panic attacks, Alvarez also testified that when taking medicine he does not hear voices, and that he has fewer panic attacks. (A.R. 29.) Alvarez testified that he was never hospitalized for his mental symptoms. (A.R. 29.) Citing many parts of the extensive examination record, the ALJ found, "Despite the claimant's assertions to the contrary, the medical record does not support the claimant's impairments are as severe as he contends." (A.R. 30.)

Ultimately, the ALJ denied the claim because he found, with the aid of testimony of a vocational expert, that Plaintiff retains enough residual functional capacity to return to his work as a kitchen helper or porter. (A.R. 37.) The ALJ also found that even if Alvarez could not return to his past work, he could find work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (A.R. 38.)

Plaintiff sought review of this decision by Appeals Council. The Appeals Council declined to review the case. (A.R. 10.) On October 6, 2009, present counsel submitted additional evidence. (A.R. 8.) On December 23, 2009, the Appeals Council set aside their earlier action, and after considering the additional evidence, again denied request for review. (A.R. 5.) Plaintiff then filed the present action.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Congress provided for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. See Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995). A reviewing court must uphold the Commissioner's factual findings where they are supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence means more than "a mere scintilla." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id.

To facilitate this Court's review, the ALJ must set out a specific factual basis for each finding. Baerga v. Richardson, 500 F.2d 309 (3d Cir. 1974), cert. denied, 420 U.S. 931 (1975). Additionally, the ALJ "must adequately explain in the record [the] reasons for rejecting or discrediting competent evidence," Ogden v. Bowen, 677 F. Supp. 273, 278 (M.D. Pa. 1987).

B. Analysis

1. Alvarez's English Proficiency

a. Legal standard

One of the most important of the ALJ's responsibilities is "to develop a full and fair record." Ventura, 55 F.3d at 902; see also Johnson v. Barnhart, 66 Fed. App'x 285, 289 (3d Cir. 2003). Even though the burden is on the claimant to prove a disability, "an ALJ must secure relevant information regarding ...


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