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Caraballo v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

February 3, 2015

JESUS M. CARABALLO, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION

KEVIN MCNULTY, District Judge.

Jesus M. Caraballo has applied for disability benefits under the Social Security Act ("SSA"). It is undisputed that he suffers from depression, but the medical evidence is in conflict as to its severity. A psychologist evaluating Mr. Caraballo for the Social Security Administration diagnosed Mr. Caraballo as suffering from "recurrent major depression, severe, with some psychotic features, " and "[g]eneralized anxiety disorder, severe." (Perdomo Evaluation, [1] 4). Records from the hospital where Mr. Caraballo received treatment, however, describe his condition as "mild depression" or "mild anxiety." (Trinitas Treatment Records I, 9-11; Trinitas Treatment Records II, 8-12, 15). An Administrative Law Judge reviewed Mr. Caraballo's medical records and heard testimony from Mr. Caraballo. Reviewing all the evidence and stating her reasons for giving greater or lesser weight to different items, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Caraballo was not disabled. Because those findings are supported by substantial evidence, this Court will affirm the decision of the ALJ.

I. Background

The regulations that govern disability determinations recognize that severe depression can make it prohibitively difficult for an individual to work. Claims of disability based on mental impairments are subject to the same five-step inquiry that applies to other types of disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

Briefly, that five step inquiry proceeds as follows. The claimant must first demonstrate that he[2] is not currently engaged in "substantial gainful activity, " i.e., that he is not currently working. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). At Step 2, the claimant must demonstrate that he has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). At Step 3, the claimant must demonstrate that his impairment meets or is equal to the impairments listed in an Appendix to the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is presumed disabled, and the inquiry ends. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); Meyler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 238 F.App'x 884, 888-89 (3d Cir. 2007), as amended (Aug. 29, 2007). After step three, but before step four, the Commissioner determines the claimant's "residual functional capacity, " meaning "the most [the claimant] can still do despite [his] limitations." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The Commissioner then uses this determination at step 4 to decide whether the claimant can return to his prior occupation. 20 C.F.R. § 1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot do so, at Step 5 the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can perform some other form of work available in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 1520(a)(4)(v).

In this case, the Commissioner completed all five steps of the evaluation process and found that Mr. Caraballo was not disabled. The ALJ found that Mr. Caraballo was not engaged in gainful activity, and that he suffered from "affective disorders, " a type of mental impairment. (Decision, 3). However, the ALJ decided that the severity of those impairments did not meet or equal one of the impairments listed in the regulations. Specifically, she found that Mr. Caraballo was not "markedly" restricted in his activities of daily living, social functioning, or in concentration, persistence, or pace. (Decision, 4). Having so found, the ALJ determined his residual functional capacity. She then determined that he could not return to his previous work as a truck driver, but that there was work available in the national economy that he could perform. (Decision, 5-9).

Mr. Caraballo challenges the ALJ's decision on four grounds: (1) At Step 3, the ALJ should have determined that Mr. Caraballo's impairments did meet one of the listed impairments in the regulations; (2) Also at Step 3, the ALJ should have more specifically diagnosed Mr. Caraballo's impairments; (3) That following Step 3, the ALJ improperly assessed Mr. Caraballo's residual functional capacity; and (4) at Step 5, the ALJ relied on the wrong portion of a vocational expert's testimony in determining that there were available jobs Mr. Caraballo could do.

Congress conferred jurisdiction on district courts to review the disability determinations of the Commissioner at 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This Court's review is limited. Although legal issues are reviewed de novo, with respect to questions of fact the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if that decision is supported by "substantial evidence." See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."); Morrison ex rel. Morrison v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 268 F.App'x 186, 187 (3d Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence means "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate... Where substantial evidence in the record supports the Commissioner's findings, the reviewing court must uphold his decision "even if [it] would have decided the factual inquiry differently." Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 35 (3d Cir. 2001) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

II. Discussion

A. Step Three

The AW found that Mr. Caraballo met steps 1 and 2. As to those determinations there is no dispute.

Mr. Caraballo's first claim of error arises from the ALJ's findings at Step 3. At that step, the claimant must demonstrate that his impairment is severe enough to meet or equal one of the impairments listed in the Regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). The list is found at Appendix 1 to Part 404, Subpart P of the Regulations. For mental impairments like the ones alleged here, Appendix 1 contains three lists of disorders, contained in Paragraphs A, B, and C. To satisfy step 3, the claimant must meet either: (1) the requirements of Paragraph A and the requirements of Paragraph B; or (2) the requirements of Paragraph C. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.04. As to the first alternative, the ALJ bypassed Paragraph A and focused on Paragraph B. Paragraph B requires that the claimant's impairment include at least two of the following four conditions:

1. Marked restriction of activities of daily living; or
2. Marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; or
3. Marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or
4. Repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration;

20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.04. The ALJ found that Mr. Caraballo had a degree of restriction in the first three areas. But because those restrictions were only "moderate, " and not "marked" as required, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Caraballo's condition did not qualify.

Mr. Caraballo challenges the ALJ's decision that he is only moderately impaired in the areas of social functioning, activities of daily living, and mental concentration.

1. Criteria 1 and 2: Activities of daily living and social functioning

With respect to activities of daily living, the regulations provide:

Activities of daily living include adaptive activities such as cleaning, shopping, cooking, taking public transportation, paying bills, maintaining a residence, caring appropriately for your grooming and hygiene, using telephones and directories, and using a post office. In the context of your overall situation, we assess the quality of these activities by their independence, appropriateness, effectiveness, and sustainability. We will determine the extent to which you are capable of initiating and participating in activities independent of supervision or direction.

20 C.F.R. Part 404 Subpart P, App. I, § 12.00(C)(1).

With respect to social functioning the regulations provide:

Social functioning refers to your capacity to interact independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis with other individuals. Social functioning includes the ability to get along with others, such as family members, friends, neighbors, grocery clerks, landlords, or bus drivers. You may demonstrate impaired social functioning by, for example, a history of altercations, evictions, firings, fear of strangers, avoidance of interpersonal relationships, or social isolation. You may exhibit strength in social functioning by such things as ...

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