United States District Court, D. New Jersey
MCNULTY, United States District Judge
Spadaccini brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) to review a final decision
of the Commissioner of Social Security
("Commissioner") denying in its entirety his claim
for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and
denying in part his claim for Supplemental Security Income
("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 and 1381-1385.
For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is VACATED and
REMANDED for consideration of Dr. Brabston's opinion as
it may bear on Spadaccini's RFC from January 1, 2009
through March 5, 2011.
seeks to reverse an ALJ's finding that he was not
disabled from September 1, 2007, through December 31, 2008,
Spadaccini's date last insured. (Complaint, ECF no. 1,
¶¶ 8-9) Spadaccini also states that the ALJ failed
to determine whether he was disabled from January 1, 2009, to
March 5, 2011, for purposes of his claim for SSI, and he
seeks a ruling on that issue. (Id.)
applied for DIB and SSI on August 1, 2008,  claiming
that he was disabled since September 1, 2007, due to chronic
heart failure, ischemic heart disease, recurrent arrhythmias,
cardiomyopathy, coronary heart disease, stroke, arthritis,
and depression. (R. 508) His application was denied initially on
January 23, 2008 (R. 81-84), and upon reconsideration on June
26, 2009 (R. 83-84). On April 15, 2011, following a hearing
at which Spadaccini testified and was represented by counsel
(R. 30-50), and a supplementary hearing so that Spadaccini
could question medical expert Dr. Martin Fechner (R. 51-80),
ALJ Richard West found that Spadaccini was "disabled,
" as defined in the Social Security Act, starting on
March 6, 2011, and awarded SSI from that date. (R. 19-29).
However, the ALJ also denied Spadaccini DIB because his
insured status expired on December 31, 2008. (Id.)
On August 9, 2012, the Appeals Council denied
Spadaccini's request for review (R. 1-5), rendering the
ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.
Spadaccini then appealed to this Court, challenging the
ALJ's determination that he was not disabled from
September 1, 2007 through March 5, 2011.
November 15, 2013, District Judge Martini of this Court
vacated and remanded for reconsideration the
Commissioner's decision. (R. 512) First, Judge Martini
found that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's
finding that Spadaccini does not have a listing-level
impairment. (R. 509) Second, Judge Martini found that the ALJ
did not err in affording greater weight to the opinion of
medical expert Dr. Martin Fechner than to Spadaccini's
treating physician Dr. Fuad Ahmad. [Id.) However,
Judge Martini did find that the ALJ failed to adequately
consider the assessment of Dr. Timothy Brabston, another of
Spadaccini's treating physicians. Although the ALJ did
mention Dr. Brabston's opinion, the ALJ neither indicated
the weight he accorded to Dr. Brabston's opinion, nor did
he adequately explain his implicit rejection of that opinion.
(R. 511) As a result, the Court could not determine whether
the ALJ's determination regarding Spadaccini's
residual functional capacity ("RFC") was supported
by substantial evidence. (Id.) As a further
consequence, Judge Martini was unable to assess whether
vocational expert testimony was required to determine whether
Spadaccini was capable of performing jobs that exist in
significant numbers in the national economy. (Id.)
remand, on June 15, 2015, ALJ West determined that Spadaccini
was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security
Act, at any time from September 1, 2007, through December 31,
2008, the date last insured. (R. 428) However, the ALJ did
not make a determination on remand as to whether Spadaccini
was disabled at any time from January 1, 2009, through March
5, 2011. Spadaccini now appeals the ALJ's decision.
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 Title XVI 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 he 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); see, e.g., Diaz v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec, 577 F.3d 500, 503 (3d Cir. 2009).
Five-Step Process and this Court's Standard of
the authority of the Social Security Act, the Social Security
Administration (the "Commissioner") has established
a five-step evaluation process for determining whether a
claimant is entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520, 416.920. This Court's 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:
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.
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
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.
(Those Part A criteria are purposely set at a high level, to
identify clear cases of disability without further analysis.)
If so, the claimant is automatically eligible to receive
benefits; if not, move to step four. Id.
§§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d).
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
5: At this point, the burden shifts to the
Commissioner to demonstrate that the claimant, considering
his 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.
all legal issues, this Court conducts a plenary review.
See 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).
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 marks and citation omitted). Substantial evidence
"is more than a mere scintilla but may be somewhat less
than a preponderance of the evidence." Id.
(internal quotation marks 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
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, however, 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
Court may, under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3), affirm, modify, or reverse the Commissioner's
decision, or it may remand the matter to the Commissioner for
a rehearing. Podedwomy v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221
(3d Cir. 1984); Bordes v. Comm'r of Soc Sec, 235
F.App'x 853, 865-66 (3d Cir. 2007) (not precedential).
is proper if the record is incomplete, or if there is a lack
of substantial evidence to support a definitive finding on
one or more steps of the five step inquiry. See
Podedworny, 745 F.2d at 221-22. Remand is also proper if
the ALJ's decision lacks adequate reasoning or support
for its conclusions, or if it contains illogical or
contradictory findings. See Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec, 220 F.3d 112, 119-20 (3d Cir. 2000). It is also
proper to remand where the ALJ's findings are not the
product of a complete review which "explicitly weigh[s]
all relevant, probative and available evidence" in the
record. Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 48 (3d Cir.
1994) (internal quotation marks omitted).
The ALJ's Decision
West properly followed the five-step process in determining
that Spadaccini was not disabled for the period from
September 1, 2007, through December 31, 2008. His findings
may be summarized as follows.
one, the ALJ determined that Spadaccini had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity in the relevant period. (R. 423
two, the ALJ found that Spadaccini had the following severe
impairments: "coronary artery disease, cardiac
dysrhythmia, hypertension, osteoarthritis, and a history of
cocaine and ...