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Sanford v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 28, 2014

CAMILLE E. SANFORD, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

RICHARD LOWELL FRANKEL, BROSS & FRANKEL, PA, CHERRY HILL, NJ, On behalf of Plaintiff.

MARIA PIA FRAGASSI-SANTANGELO, OFFICE OF THE U.S. ATTORNEY SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, NEW YORK, NY, On behalf of Defendant.

OPINION

NOEL L. HILLMAN, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. The issue before the Court is whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in finding that there was "substantial evidence" that plaintiff was not disabled at any time since her alleged onset date of disability, November 16, 2008. For the reasons stated below, this Court will remand this matter to the ALJ to evaluate the reports of plaintiff's chiropractors using the same factors applicable to acceptable medical sources, and if such reports are rejected or given little weight, to include his reasoning for doing so. On all other grounds, we will affirm.

I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits alleging a disability beginning November 16, 2008. On that date, plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle accident and was seen at the emergency room at Kennedy Health System with complaints of pain in the head, neck, back right leg, knee and ankle. Plaintiff was diagnosed with cervical strain and closed head injury. Plaintiff alleges that she suffers from disorders of the neck, including radiculopathy and headaches, discogenic and degenerative disorders of the back and anxiety disorder. Plaintiff has a college education and previously worked at Chestnut Hill Hospital as a controller.

Plaintiff's claim was denied on April 13, 2010, and denied on reconsideration on July 2, 2010. A hearing before the ALJ was held on May 3, 2011, and plaintiff was represented by counsel. After the hearing, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's discogenic and degenerative disorders of the back, and anxiety disorder were severe impairments, but that her impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526). The ALJ also found that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work, but that due to her mental impairment she has the capacity for only unskilled work.

Plaintiff appealed the decision. The Appeals Council reviewed the ALJ's decision, and upheld it, rendering it final. Plaintiff now seeks this Court's review.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Congress provided for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny a complainant's application for disability insurance benefits. Ventura v. Shalala , 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995). A reviewing court must uphold the Commissioner's factual decisions 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); Sykes v. Apfel , 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000); Williams v. Sullivan , 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992). 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 . The inquiry is not whether the reviewing court would have made the same determination, but whether the Commissioner's conclusion was reasonable. See Brown v. Bowen , 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988).

A reviewing court has a duty to review the evidence in its totality. See Daring v. Heckler , 727 F.2d 64, 70 (3d Cir. 1984). "[A] court must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.'" Schonewolf v. Callahan , 972 F.Supp. 277, 284 (D.N.J. 1997) (quoting Willbanks v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs. , 847 F.2d 301, 303 (6th Cir. 1988) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. V. NLRB , 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)).

The Commissioner "must adequately explain in the record his reasons 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)). The Third Circuit has held that an "ALJ must review all pertinent medical evidence and explain his conciliations and rejections." Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin. , 220 F.3d 112, 122 (3d Cir. 2000). Similarly, an ALJ must also consider and weigh all of the nonmedical evidence before him. Id . (citing Van Horn v. Schweiker , 717 F.2d 871, 873 (3d Cir. 1983)); Cotter v. Harris , 642 F.2d 700, 707 (3d Cir. 1981).

The Third Circuit has held that access to the Commissioner's reasoning is indeed essential to ...


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