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Diaz v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, Third Circuit

September 24, 2013

ED DIAZ, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION

WILLIAM J. MARTINI, District Judge.

Plaintiff Ed Diaz, a survivor of the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, appeals an administrative law judge's denial of disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits. Mr. Diaz argues, inter alia, that the administrative law judge improperly weighed various expert opinions and relied on vocational expert testimony that did not reflect the facts of Mr. Diaz's situation. The Commissioner does not challenge any of the arguments Diaz makes in his brief. Indeed, the Commissioner recognizes that the administrative law judge's decision "is not defensible, " Commissioner's Br. at 1, ECF No. 19. The only disputed issue before this Court is whether alleged bias on the part of the administrative law judge requires this Court to remand the case to a new administrative law judge. The Court will VACATE and REMAND this case. The Court will DENY Mr. Diaz's request for reassignment.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Ed Diaz found himself on the 32nd floor of one of the Twin Towers on September 11th. Administrative Transcript ("Tr.") 55. Mr. Diaz managed to get out, but many of his friends did not. Id.

On June 26, 2007, consulting psychiatrist Dr. Nimer Iskandarani diagnosed Mr. Diaz with post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). Id. at 242. Dr. Iskandarani concluded that Mr. Diaz's "social and occupational competence" was "inadequate." Id. at 241.

Following a 2007 car accident, Mr. Diaz sought treatment from Jidong Sun, a doctor specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Dr. Sun identified "significant functional limitations interfering with patient's working ability and his activities of daily living." Id. at 248. After MRIs indicated a bulging cervical disc and a herniated lumbar disc, Dr. Sun indicated that Mr. Diaz should limit physical activities to a "tolerable limit." Id. at 248, 254. On March 24, 2009 orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Basch examined Mr. Diaz and diagnosed cervical, lumbar, and wrist strains with spinal disc disruption, bulge, and herniation, and bilateral median mononeuropathy. Id. at 287.

In 2007-2008, Mr. Diaz received psychiatric care from Dr. Claudio Dicovskiy. Dr. Dicovskiy diagnosed PTSD and concluded that Mr. Diaz's impulse control was "fair to poor." Id. at 275. In 2009, Mr. Diaz began a partial hospitalization program for mental health care at Harbor House, an entity affiliated with St. Joseph's Medical Center. Id. at 276. In October 2010, Dr. Marcia Ribalta, Mr. Diaz's psychiatrist at Harbor House, informed the Social Security Administration that Mr. Diaz could not meet competitive standards in the areas of "deal[ing] with normal work stress" and "complet[ing] a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms." Id. at 376. In Dr. Ribalta's opinion, Mr. Diaz would have to miss about four days of work per month. Id. at 379. Also in October 2010, Dr. Ribalta informed the Social Security Administration that in her medical opinion, Mr. Diaz would be "unable to do any type of competitive employment." Id. at 464.

On October 27, 2010, administrative law judge Donna A. Krappa (the "ALJ") convened a hearing on Mr. Diaz's benefits application. Tr. at 38-81. To determine whether Mr. Diaz could perform jobs available in the national economy, the ALJ took testimony from a vocational expert. The vocational expert first considered a hypothetical person of Mr. Diaz's age, educational background and work history who could lift ten pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally, who could perform low stress work with three 15 minute breaks every day, and who could not work in close proximity to others. The vocational expert testified that the following jobs in the national economy were available to this person: eye drop assembler, scale operator, and carding machine operator. Tr. at 77. The ALJ also asked the vocational expert to consider another hypothetical person of Mr. Diaz's age, educational background, and work history. Unlike the first hypothetical person, this individual would have to miss four days of work per month. The vocational expert testified that this person could not find work in the competitive labor market. Id. at 78.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

A. The Five-Step Sequential Analysis

Under the authority of the Social Security Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In the first step, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date of the alleged disability. Id. § 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If not, the Commissioner moves to step two to determine if the claimant's alleged impairment, or combination of impairments, is "severe." Id. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner inquires in step three as to whether the impairment meets or equals the criteria of any impairment found in the Listing of Impairments. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, Part A ("Part A"). If so, the claimant is automatically eligible to receive benefits (and the analysis ends); if not, the Commissioner moves on to step four. Id. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). In the fourth step, the Commissioner decides whether, despite any severe impairment, the claimant retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform past relevant work. Id. §§ 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 Social Security 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); see Poulos v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 88, 91-92 (3d Cir. 2007) (citations omitted).

B. Standard of Review

For purposes of this appeal, the court's review of legal issues is plenary. See Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). The ALJ's factual findings are reviewed "only to determine whether the administrative record contains substantial evidence supporting the findings." Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000). Substantial evidence is "less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla." Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). "It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. When substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings, this Court must abide by the ALJ's determinations. See id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).

The substantial evidence standard is highly deferential. "If a limitation is medically supported but is also contradicted by other evidence, the ALJ can choose to credit portions of the existing evidence and disregard others." Seabon v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 10-2268, 2011 WL 3425508, at *8 (D.N.J. Aug. 4, 2011). "The ALJ cannot, however, reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason.'" Id. (internal citation omitted).

In determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, the Court must consider the entire record. Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003). "The court must give deference to the administrative findings and may not weigh the evidence or substitute its conclusions for those of the fact-finder.'" Allen v. Comm'r of ...


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