United States District Court, D. New Jersey
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, District Judge.
Plaintiff Vicki Blasucci 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 was engaging in substantial activity during the relevant period. 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, a sixty-two-year-old resident of Plainfield, New Jersey, seeks a finding of disability on the basis of impairments associated with having HIV and Hepatitis C. Administrative Transcript ("Tr.") 18. Plaintiff has a high school diploma and was previously employed as a hair dresser. Tr. 22.
On March 21, 2007, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance, alleging disability as of December 31, 1997. Tr. 169-83 Plaintiff's application alleged that she could not work because she suffered from human immunodeficiency virus, chronic stage II hepatitis C, lipodystrophy, depression, panic attacks, and arthritis. Tr. 22. The ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim on October 29, 2009. Tr. 81-83. On December 29, 2009, Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review that decision. Tr. 130-34. On April 25, 2011 the Appeals Council remanded the case back to the ALJ because the ALJ failed to take into account additional evidence concerning Plaintiff's medical condition, including a report from her treating physician. Tr. 90-91. After reviewing the additional evidence and holding another oral hearing, the ALJ issued a December 19, 2011 decision concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and thus not entitled to disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). Tr. 19. The ALJ concluded that documentary medical reports, testimony from experts, and Plaintiff's own testimony demonstrated that Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") would allow her to perform her prior job as a hair dresser. Tr. 20-27. Therefore, Plaintiff was not entitled to disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). The Appeals Council confirmed that decision on July 2, 2013. Tr. 1-4. Plaintiff now appeals.
A. Summary of the Record
The record includes medical records from treating physician Dr. James Greenman, Ph.D., medical expert testimony from Dr. Martin Fechner, M.D., testimony from vocational expert ("VE") Patricia Sasona, and Plaintiff's own testimony.
In 2008, Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. James Greenman, submitted a report indicating that Plaintiff was only capable of less than of sedentary work. Tr. 301-06. The report stated that Plaintiff was capable of standing and/or walking for no more than two hours per day and had limited ability to push or pull objects while working. Id. In addition to the 2008 report, the record consists of Dr. Greenman's "progress notes" on Plaintiff's medical condition. The progress reports noted that Plaintiff did not have any obvious infections, and that by 2005, Plaintiff had a healthy T-cell count. A 2005 progress report also noted that while Plaintiff did suffer from congestion, her lungs were clear. See Tr. 404. In 2006, Dr. Greenman noted that Plaintiff's acute pneumonia was clinically better and her HIV remained in good control. Tr. 413. A 2007 report from a different physician indicated that Plaintiff had experienced "no chest pain and no shortness of breath along with no nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation." However, the same report did indicate that Plaintiff suffered from sinus headaches and ankle swelling. Tr. 521. In 2009, Dr. Greenman reported that Plaintiff's HIV was under excellent control. Tr. 520.
In addition to reports from Plaintiff's treating physician, the record also contains testimony from Dr. Martin Fechner. Tr. 66. Dr. Fechner testified that Plaintiff's CD-4 count was normal as of August 2009. He also testified that there was no evidence of major opportunistic infection or wasting syndrome. Tr. 66-67. Dr. Fechner also opined ...