United States District Court, D. New Jersey
KEVIN McNULTY, District Judge.
Ericka Klabanoff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 5 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her claim for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Klabanoff alleges that she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity because she suffers from depression, anxiety, personality disorders, substance abuse problems, spinal conditions, and other ailments. (Pl. Br. 3, ECF No. 11).
For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.
Klabanoff seeks DIB and SSI benefits for a period of disability beginning October 1, 2007. (R. 260, ECF No. 7). After holding a hearing on February 25, 2011 ( Id. 39-74), Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Dennis O'Leary denied Klabanoff's initial application in a decision dated March 3, 2011. ( Id. 118-26). The case was then remanded to the ALJ by the Appeals Council on August 30, 2012. ( Id. 131-36). The ALJ held a supplementary hearing on January 10, 2013, at which Klabanoff was represented by counsel and testified for the second time. ( Id. 75-113). The ALJ then denied Klabanoff's application a second time in a decision dated March 8, 2013. ( Id. 12-34). On September 18, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Klabanoff's second appeal, making the ALJ's second decision the "final decision" of the Commissioner. ( Id. 1-5). Klabanoff now appeals that decision.
To qualify for Title II DIB benefits, a claimant must meet the insured status requirements of 42 U.S.C. § 423(c). To be eligible for SSI benefits, a claimant must meet the income and resource limitations of 42 U.S.C. § 1382. To qualify under either statute, a claimant must show that she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted (or can be expected to last) for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A).
a. Five-Step Process and this Court's Standard of Review
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. Review necessarily incorporates a determination of whether the ALJ properly followed the five-step process prescribed by regulation. The steps may be briefly summarized as follows:
Step 1: Determine whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date of the alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If not, move to step two.
Step 2: 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, move to step three.
Step 3: Determine whether the impairment meets or equals the criteria of any impairment found in the Listing of Impairments. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, Pt. A. If so, the claimant is automatically eligible to receive benefits; if not, move to step four. Id. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d).
Step 4: Determine 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). If not, move to step five.
Step 5: At this point, the burden shifts to the SSA to demonstrate that the claimant, considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, is capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. 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). If so, benefits will be denied; if not, they will be awarded.
As to all legal issues, this Court conducts a plenary review. Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). As to factual findings, this Court adheres to the ALJ's findings, as long as they are supported by substantial evidence. Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Where facts are disputed, this Court will "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 such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Zirnsak v. Colvin, 777 F.3d 607, 610 (3d Cir. 2014) (internal quotation and citation omitted). That "is more than a mere scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence." Id. (internal quotation and citation omitted).
[I]n evaluating whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings... leniency should be shown in establishing the claimant's disability, and... the Secretary's responsibility to rebut it should be strictly construed. Due regard for the beneficent purposes of the legislation requires that a more tolerant standard be used in this administrative proceeding than is applicable in a typical suit in a court of record where the adversary system prevails.
Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003) (internal citations and quotations omitted). When there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual findings, this Court must abide by them. See Jones, 364 F.3d at 503 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)); Zirnsak, 777 F.3d at 610-11 ("[W]e are mindful that we must not substitute our own judgment for that of the fact finder.").
This Court may, under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and the Third Circuit's Podedworny opinion, affirm, modify, or reverse the Secretary's decision, with or without a remand to the Secretary for a rehearing. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984); Bordes v. Commissioner, 235 F.Appx. 853, 865-66 (3d Cir. 2007).
b. The Appeals Council's Order
On remand, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to:
Give further consideration to the examining and nontreating source opinions pursuant to the provisions of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527 and 416.927 and Social Security Rulings 96-5p and 96-6p, and explain the weight given to such opinion evidence....
Further evaluate [Klabanoff's] subjective complaints and provide rationale in accordance with disability regulations pertaining to evaluation of symptoms (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529 and 416.929) and Social Security Ruling 96-7p.
Further evaluate [Klabanoff's] mental impairment in accordance with the special technique described in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a and 416.920a, documenting application of the technique in the decision by providing specific findings and appropriate rationale for each of the functional areas described in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(c) and 416.920a(c).
Give further consideration to [Klabanoff's] maximum residual functional capacity and provide appropriate rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of the assessed limitations (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545 and 416.945 and Social Security Rulings 85-16 and 96-8p).
If warranted by the expanded record, obtain evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on the claimant's occupational base (Social Security Ruling 83-14)....
c. The ALJ's ...