United States District Court, D. New Jersey
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, District Judge.
Plaintiff Kristy Flynn brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) seeking review of a final determination by the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying her application for a period of disability and Disability 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 (or "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 Administrative Law Judge ("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). Substantial evidence 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)).
Plaintiff seeks a finding of disability on the basis of psychological impairments. Administrative Transcript ("Tr.") 28. Plaintiff is thirty-two years old and lives in Bayonne, New Jersey with her two-year-old child. Tr. 16. Plaintiff claims that she is unable to work because she has anxiety and doesn't like to be around other people. Tr. 37. Plaintiff has a high school diploma. Tr. 18. Previously, Plaintiff has held jobs as a waitress, a bartender, and an in-home child care worker. Tr. 354, 18.
On November 1, 2009, Plaintiff filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. On November 25, 2009, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance, alleging disability as of September 8, 1999. The application alleged that Plaintiff suffered from medical impairments, including depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and an anxiety disorder. Tr. 28. The ALJ denied Plaintiffs claim on June 13, 2012, and the Appeals Council affirmed that decision on October 18, 2013. The ALJ's decision denying Plaintiffs application was based on the finding that Plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC") is compatible with other work existing in the national economy. Tr. 8-24. Specifically, the ALJ relied on the Vocational Expert's ("VE") testimony, finding that Plaintiff can perform unskilled repetitive jobs that require only occasional contact with the public. Tr. 24. Plaintiff now appeals.
A. Summary of the Record
The record includes medical records from treating physician Dr. Mariza Del Rosario Garcia, psychological evaluations from Dr. Jennifer C. Figurelli, Ph.D., and an evaluation from non-examining consultant, Dr. Paul Fulford, Ph.D. It also includes Plaintiffs own testimony regarding her condition and her daily routine. Finally, it includes testimony from the VE, Mr. Rocco Meola.
Dr. Figurelli conducted Plaintiffs psychological evaluation on August 4, 2011. Tr. 251. As a result of Dr. Figurelli's Mental Status Examination, Plaintiff was found to suffer mild mental retardation with an IQ of 61. Tr. 337. In addition to this Axis I diagnosis, Dr. Figurelli also diagnosed Plaintiff on Axis II with "depression, general anxiety disorder, ADHD, bipolar I (mixed) and r/o heroin dependence." Tr. 368. Upon further review of Dr. Figurelli's evaluation, the ALJ submitted interrogatories to medical expert and clinical psychologist, Dr. Paul Fulford. Tr. 251. Those interrogatories were completed on May 3, 2012. Tr. 251. Dr. Fulford concluded that Plaintiff meets the listing for mental retardation with a full scale IQ of 61, placing her in the mild range of mental retardation. Tr. 370.
In contrast to Dr. Figurelli and Dr. Fulford's findings, the record also includes medical records and evaluations from Plaintiffs treating physician, Dr. Del Rosario Garcia. These evaluations, which took place between 2009 and 2011, do not mention any cognitive limitations. Tr. 352. In 2009, Dr. Del Rosario Garcia noted in her treatment assessment that Plaintiffs speech was normal, her thoughts were organized, and she was fully oriented. Tr. 352. In January 2010, Dr. Del Rosario Garcia diagnosed Plaintiff with an anxiety disorder, but Plaintiffs mental status remained unchanged. Tr. 351. Similarly, in October 2011, Dr. Del Rosario Garcia noted in her treatment assessment that Plaintiffs mental status remained in tact. Tr. 345. Again, Dr. ...