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Dickerson v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

February 11, 2014

MICHAEL DICKERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, [1] Defendant.

OPINION

RENÉE MARIE BUMB, District Judge.

Plaintiff Michael Dickerson (the "Plaintiff"), appearing pro se, seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying his application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI). Before the Court is the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings requesting that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision.

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A reviewing court must uphold the Commissioner of Social Security's factual findings if they are supported by "substantial evidence, " even if the court would have decided the inquiry differently. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Knepp v. Apfel , 204 F.3d 78, 83 (3d Cir. 2000); Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001). "Substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Cons. Edison Co. v. NLRB , 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). Where the evidence is susceptible to "more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld." Ahearn v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 165 F.Appx. 212, 215 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Daring v. Heckler , 727 F.2d 64, 70 (3d Cir. 1984); Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler , 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-91 (3d Cir. 1986)).

If faced with conflicting evidence, however, the Commissioner "must adequately explain in the record his reason for rejecting or discrediting competent evidence." Ogden v. Bowen , 677 F.Supp. 273, 278 (M.D. Pa. 1987) (citing Brewster v. Heckler , 786 F.2d 581 (3d Cir. 1986)). Stated differently,

[U]nless the [Commissioner] has analyzed all evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously probative exhibits, to say that his decision is supported by substantial evidence approaches an abdication of the court's duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached are rational.

Gober v. Matthews , 574 F.2d 772, 776 (3d Cir. 1978) (quoting Arnold v. Sec'y of Health, Ed. & Welfare , 567 F.2d 258, 259 (4th Cir. 1977)) (internal quotations omitted); see also Guerrero v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 05-1709 , 2006 WL 1722356, at *3 (D.N.J. June 19, 2006) ("The [administrative law judge's] responsibility is to analyze all the evidence and to provide adequate explanations when disregarding portions of it."), aff'd, 249 F.Appx. 289 (3d Cir. 2007).

While the Commissioner's decision need not discuss "every tidbit of evidence included in the record, " Hur v. Barnhart , 94 F.Appx. 130, 133 (3d Cir. 2004), it must consider all pertinent medical and non-medical evidence and "explain [any] conciliations and rejections, " Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 220 F.3d 112, 122 (3d Cir. 2000). See also Fargnoli , 247 F.3d at 42 ("Although we do not expect the [administrative law judge] to make reference to every relevant treatment note in a case where the claimant... has voluminous medical records, we do expect the ALJ, as the factfinder, to consider and evaluate the medical evidence in the record consistent with his responsibilities under the regulations and case law.").

In addition to the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the reviewing court must also determine whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") applied the correct legal standards. See Friedberg v. Schweiker , 721 F.2d 445, 447 (3d Cir. 1983); Sykes v. Apfel , 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000). The court's review of legal issues is plenary. Sykes , 228 F.3d at 262 (citing Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999)).

"Disability" Defined

The Social Security Act ("SSA") defines "disability" as the inability "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act further states,

[A]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

The Commissioner has promulgated a five-step, sequential analysis for evaluating a claimant's disability, as outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). In Plummer , 186 F.3d at 428, the Third Circuit described the Commissioner's inquiry at each step of this analysis:

In step one, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 1520(a). If a claimant is found to be engaged in substantial activity, the disability claim will be denied. Bowen v. Yuckert , 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987).
In step two, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant fails to show that [his] impairments are "severe, " [he] is ineligible for disability benefits.
In step three, the Commissioner compares the medical evidence of the claimant's impairment to a list of impairments presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If a claimant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its equivalent, the analysis proceeds to steps four and five.
Step four requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity to perform [his] past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating an inability to return to [his] past relevant work. Adorno v. Shalala , 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). If the claimant is unable to resume [his] former occupation, the evaluation moves to the final step.
At this [fifth] stage, the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, who must demonstrate the claimant is capable of performing other available work in order to deny a claim of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). The ALJ must show there are other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy which the claimant can perform, consistent with [his] medical impairments, age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity. The ALJ must analyze the cumulative effect of all the claimant's impairments in determining whether [he] is capable of performing work and is not disabled. See 20 ...

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