United States District Court, D. New Jersey
KEVIN McNULTY, District Judge.
The plaintiff, Adriant Coleman, is a 47-year-old man who suffers from bipolar disorder, which appears to greatly inhibit his functional capacity. Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security insurance benefits in March 2009 but Defendant Commissioner of Social Security denied his application, as well as a follow-up application for reconsideration. Administrative Law Judge James Andres ("the AU") affirmed Defendant's denial in January 2011, and the Appeals Council affirmed Andres' decision in July 2012, rendering it a final decision of the agency. The central issue in dispute is whether Plaintiff's symptoms render him unable to work.
In this action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), Plaintiff claims that the agency's decision should be reversed or remanded for further consideration. As explained below, I find that the record does not contain substantial evidence to support several of the findings on which this denial of benefits was based, and further find that the AU arrived at his decision without a legally sufficient analysis in certain respects. I will therefore REMAND this case for a new hearing consistent with the findings of this opinion.
Plaintiff has received several diagnoses of bipolar disorder and has been hospitalized on several occasions amid what appear to be psychological breakdowns. He has, generally speaking, been stabilized thanks to an aggressive drug treatment and therapy plan administered by his treating psychologist. He states that he has been disabled since December 1, 2006, and has not worked since then, except for a short stint in 2008.
The Administrative Decision Under Review
Plaintiff received a 17-minute hearing before the ALJ in December 2010 (ECF No. 7-2 at pp. 24-39). Based on that hearing and exhibits in the administrative record, the ALJ rendered a 9-page decision finding Mr. Coleman not disabled, and therefore not eligible for the benefits sought. (Decision [ECF No. 7-2] at pp. 12-20).
The issue, as the ALJ set forth, is whether Mr. Coleman is "disabled, " that is to say, suffering from an "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 has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 416. See also 42 U.S.C. 423(d). The test for determining whether an individual is disabled is a five-step sequential evaluation process, codified at 20 CFR 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a).
The first step asks whether the applicant is "doing substantial gainful activity, " i.e., work for pay or profit. 20 CFR 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 404.1572. The analysis proceeds to step two only if the applicant is not engaging in such activity. The ALJ found that Mr. Coleman was not engaged in such substantial activity at any time following the period of alleged onset of disability. (Decision at p. 3); see 20 CFR 404.1520(a)(4)(i); 404.1572.
The second step asks whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that is "severe, " and expected to last for a continuous period of 12 months. Id. at 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); 405.1509. The analysis proceeds to step three only if the requisite severity is shown. Here, the ALJ found that the evidence established that Mr. Coleman had the impairment of bipolar disorder and that this impairment is "severe" within the meaning of the regulations "because it causes significant limitation in the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities." (Decision at p. 3 (citing 20 CFR 416.920(c))).
The third step asks whether the claimant's impairments or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, as well as the duration requirement of 20 CFR 404.1509 (requiring impaired to "be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months"). If there in an affirmative finding at step three, then the claimant is "disabled." If not, then the analysis proceeds to step four. Here, the ALT found that Mr. Coleman did not satisfy the "paragraph B" criteria of listing 12.04 of the Appendix (affective disorders), deeming Mr. Coleman's restrictions "moderate" and not "marked." He wrote two paragraphs of analysis in this regard. He also found that Mr. Coleman could not satisfy the "paragraph C" criteria, writing one paragraph on this topic. ( See id. at p. 4).
Accordingly, the ALJ conducted the fourth step, which asks for a determination of "the claimant's residual functional capacity": the claimant's "ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from his impairments (both severe and non-severe)." As part of step four, the AI., J is then to determine whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform the requirements of his past work (spanning the last 15 years), either as he actually performed it or as it is generally performed in the national economy. If the claimant has the RFC to do his past relevant work, he is not disabled and the analysis ends. If the applicant is unable to do any of his past relevant work or has no such work, the analysis proceeds to step five. Here, the ALJ announced that "claimant has the [RFC] to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant is able to maintain pace, persistence, and concentration in simple routine tasks and is able to relate appropriately to coworkers and the public." ( Id. at p. 5). The ALI explained that while Mr. Coleman's alleged symptoms could certain arise from his impairment, Mr. Coleman's statements regarding the intensity and persistence of those symptoms were not credible. ( Id. ). To further support his finding as to Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ accepted certain portions of the medical input in the record, while rejecting others. ( Id. at p. 7). Finally, and crucially, the ALJ found Coleman "capable of performing" his past relevant work as a crane operator and laborer, as this work "does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's [RFC]." ( Id. ). The ALJ, however, limited his analysis to the "physical demands of this work." ( Id. ).
A step four finding that the applicant is not disabled is sufficient to conclude the analysis. Here, however, the ALJ nevertheless continued to Step 5 and found, in the alternative that Mr. Coleman, given his RFC, can perform other work that exists in the national economy. ( Id. at p. 8 (citing 20 CFR 404.1569, 416.969)).
On this appeal, Mr. Coleman objects to the following steps of the ALJ's sequential analysis:
- Step Two, claiming that the ALJ should have found schizophrenia to be an additional impairment;
- Step Three, claiming that the ALJ's analysis and conclusion under listing 12.04 ran counter to the evidence, and that the AU should have also analyzed Mr. Coleman's impairment under listing 12.03 (schizophrenia).
- Step Four, complaining that there is insufficient explanation and evidence to support the conclusion that Mr. Coleman has "no problems" with persistence, concentration, and pace, so long as his tasks are simple and routine, and that Mr. Coleman can relate appropriately to coworkers and the public. He also complains that his past job should not have been labeled "general laborer, " as there is no evidence of this. Finally, he contests the finding that plaintiff could work as a crane operator again, and that this job entailed simple, routine tasks.
- Step Five, complaining that this finding, too, is not supported by substantial evidence.
I will affirm the ALJ's Step One finding. As to Step Two, because I am remanding for other reasons, I will request clarification. I find merit in Plaintiff's contentions regarding Steps Three, Four, and Five. As to those, I will reverse several of the ALJ's findings and remand for a new hearing.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW AND POTENTIAL REMEDIES
For the purpose of this appeal, the Court conducts a plenary review of the legal issues. See Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). The factual findings of the AI.0 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)(emphasis added). 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 exists to support the ALJ's factual findings, this Court must abide by the ALJ's determinations. See id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).
A district court, after reviewing the decision of the Secretary may, under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) affirm, modify, or reverse the Secretary's decision with or without a remand to the Secretary for a rehearing. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984); Bordes v. Commissioner, 235 Fed.App'x 853, 865-66 (3d Cir. 2007).
Outright reversal with an awarding of benefits is appropriate "only when the administrative record of the case has been fully developed and when substantial evidence on the record as a whole indicates that the claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits." Podedworny, 745 F.2d at 221-222; Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 320 (3d Cir. 2000)(citing Podedworny); see also Bantleon v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99537, *38-39 (D.N.J. 2010). Thus, if the ALJ's findings are not supported by the substantial evidence, and the record is fully developed, with substantial evidence sufficient to establish disability, then the District Court should reverse and find in the claimant's favor. See, e.g., Morales at 320. When the petitioner has faced long delays, the courts tend to take a liberal approach in determining whether the record is sufficiently developed. See id.; Bantleon at *38-.39.
Remand is proper if the Court if the record is incomplete or lacks substantial evidence sufficient to find that claimant disabled or not disabled under the five step inquiry. See Podedworny 745 F.2d at 221-222. It is also proper where the ALJ's findings are not the product of a complete review of the record evidence which "explicitly' weigh[s] all relevant, probative and available evidence." Adomo v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 48 (3d Cir. 1994). Indeed, the Commissioner "must provide some explanation for a rejection of probative evidence which would suggest a contrary disposition." Id. Though she "may properly accept some parts of the medical evidence and reject other parts, she must consider all the evidence and give some reason for discounting the evidence she rejects." Id. Along similar lines, "[t]he ALJ must review all the medical findings and other evidence presented in support of a treating physician's report against the reports submitted by other physicians who have examined the claimant." Id. at 47-48. The ALJ may not ignore a treating physician's opinion; to the contrary, they must give it controlling weight if the opinion is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence." 20 CFR 404.1527(c)(2). If the ALJ does not ascribe controlling weight, he or she must nonetheless "pay close attention to the medical findings of a treating physician, " Bordes v. Commissioner, 235 Fed.App'x at 864 (quoting Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 584 (3d Cir. 1986)), and must express why he or she rejects any of those findings-they may not be simply ignored. Id .; see Adomo at 48.
Steps One and Two
At Step One, the ALJ found that Mr. Coleman has not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since December 1, 2006, the date upon which he contends he became disabled. Such a finding is the first step towards a disability finding, permitting the sequential analysis to proceed to Step Two. See 20 CFR 404.1520(a). Naturally, Plaintiff does not ...