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Rodriguez v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 31, 2014

CARMEN RODRIGUEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION

WILLIAM J. MARTINI, District Judge.

Plaintiff Carmen Rodriguez brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking review of a final determination by the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying her application for a period of disability, Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") Benefits. For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

I. 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. 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 the purpose of this appeal, the court conducts a plenary review of the legal issues. See Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). The factual findings of the ALJ 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 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)).

II. BACKGROUND

On May 11, 2010, Plaintiff filed applications for disability, DIB, and SSI. In these applications, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning April 1, 2008, due to depression, high blood pressure, and diabetes. These claims were denied initially on September 30, 2010 and upon reconsideration on March 14, 2011. Plaintiff subsequently filed a written request for hearing. The Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing held on February 7, 2012 before Administrative Law Judge Norman R. Zamboni (the "ALJ"). On February 22, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application on grounds that Plaintiff does not have a listing-level impairment and that Plaintiff's RFC is compatible with her past work as a clothing price tagger.

Plaintiff sought Appeals Council review, and on May 7, 2013, the Appeals Council concluded that there were no grounds for review. Plaintiff now brings the instant appeal, challenging the ALJ's determination that she was not disabled beginning April 1, 2008.

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's determination that she was "not disabled" on several grounds. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in finding that: (1) Plaintiff's impairments did not constitute a listing-level impairment, (2) Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform her past relevant work, and (3) a vocational expert was not necessary to assess Plaintiff's claims. Each of these challenges will be addressed in turn.

A. The ALJ correctly determined that Plaintiff's conditions were not a listing-level impairment.

Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ failed to properly "compare the combined effect of all the [P]laintiff's impairments with one or more of the Commissioner's listings." (Pl's Br. at 10-11). Plaintiff contends that her "dual psychiatric impairments, major depression and adjustment disorder, [were] never combined for an analysis of medical equivalence." (Pl's Br. at 10). Specifically, Plaintiff believes that "a person whose activities of daily living mandate ...


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