United States District Court, D. New Jersey
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, District Judge.
Plaintiff Cesia Moncada 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 Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). 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)).
On May 18, 2009, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and DIB. The filings alleged that Plaintiff had a disability beginning February 8, 2008, due to osteoarthritis and depression. Plaintiff's application was denied initially on January 4, 2010, and again upon reconsideration on July 12, 2010. On June 27, 2011, Plaintiff, Maria Zapata, who is Plaintiff's mother, and Rocco Meola, a vocational expert, testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Donna A. Krappa (the "ALJ"). On September 19, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments were severe, but did not meet or equal the impairments found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, Part A. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") for light work. The ALJ then found that while Plaintiff could no longer perform her past work as a warehouse clerk, there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she remained capable of performing. The Appeal's Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and she filed the instant action.
Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's decision on several grounds. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ: (1) failed to adequately evaluate her impairments in light of the listings at steps two and three; (2) did not adequately consider the record evidence in connection with her RFC determination; and (3) incorrectly relied on vocational expert testimony that did not account for all of Plaintiff's limitations at step five.
A. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff does not have a listing-level impairment.
At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had two severe impairments: a back impairment and depression. At step three, the ALJ found that these impairments did not meet the requirements of listings 1.04A or 12.04. Plaintiff seems to argue that the ALJ incorrectly characterized several "separate pathologies" affecting Plaintiff's lumbar spine as a back impairment. However, Plaintiff provides no support for why the ALJ's characterization of Plaintiff's condition as a back impairment reviewable under listing 1.04A was in error. In fact, most of these "separate pathologies" are explicitly identified in listing 1.04A as examples of disorders of the spine. Plaintiff also fails to identify any other listings that the ALJ should have considered. The Court thus finds that the ALJ's characterization of Plaintiff's ailments as a back condition reviewable under listing 1.04 was not in error.
Moving to step three, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to consider her impairments in combination and did not adequately evaluate the ...