United States District Court, D. New Jersey
MCNULTYXS United States District Judge
Rios brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security (the "Commissioner") denying Rios's
claims for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI")
under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. For the reasons
set forth below, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge
(the "ALJ") is AFFIRMED.
applied for SSI benefits on February 11, 2013, alleging a
February 16, 2009 onset of disability (R
201-207).Her claim was denied initially on July 2,
2013 (R 90-104), and on reconsideration on December 2, 2013
(R 108-110). Rios subsequently requested and received a
hearing before an ALJ (see R 111-129, 156-190), at
which Rios testified on September 2, 2015 (see R
Dennis CLeary issued a decision dated October 19, 2015,
finding Rios "not disabled" (see R 20-41). On
November 25, 2015, Rios filed a request for review of the
ALJ's decision (see R 18-19), which the Appeals
Council denied on May 27, 2016 (see R 1-9), thereby
rendering ALJ CLeary's October 19, 2015 decision the
Final decision of the Commissioner. Rios now appeals that
decision to this Court for review under 42 U.S.C. §
qualify for Title XVI SSI benefits, a claimant must meet
income and resource limitations and 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. §§ 1382, 1382c(a)(3)(A),
(B); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a); see Rlig v. Comm'r
Soc. Sec, 570 F.App'x 262, 264 (3d Cir. 2014).
Five-Step Process and this Court's Standard of
the authority of the Social Security Act, the Social Security
Administration (the "SSA") has established a
five-step evaluation process for determining whether a
claimant is entitled to benefits. 20 CFR § 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
Step 1: Determine whether the claimant has
engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date
of the alleged disability. 20 CFR § 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. § 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 CFR Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, Pt.
A. If so, the claimant is automatically eligible to receive
benefits (and the analysis ends); if not, move to step four.
20 CFR §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. § 416.920(e)-(f). If not,
move to step five.
Step 5: At this point, the burden shifts to
the Social Security Administration 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 CFR §
416.920(g); see Poulos v. Comm'r of Soc. Sea,
474 F.3d 88, 91-92 (3d Cir. 2007). If so, benefits will be
denied; if not, they will be awarded.
purpose of this appeal, the Court conducts a plenary review
of the legal issues. See Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec, 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)).
Court may, under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), 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) (non-precedential). Outright reversal with an
award of benefits is appropriate only when a fully developed
administrative record contains substantial evidence that the
claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits.
Podedwomy, 745 F.2d at 221-222; Morales v.
Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 320 (3d Cir. 2000).
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
Podedwomy, 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); Leech v.
Barnhart, 111 F.App'x 652, 658 (3d Cir. 2004)
("We will not accept the ALJ's conclusion that [the
claimant] was not disabled during the relevant period, where
his decision contains significant contradictions and is
therefore unreliable.") (non-precedential). It is also
proper to remand where the ALJ's findings are not die
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).
B. The ALJ's Decision
ALJ O'Leary properly followed the five-step process. I
summarize his conclusions here:
one, ALJ O'Leary found that Rios had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity from the application date of
February 11, 2013. (R 28)
two, the ALJ found that Rios had the following severe
impairments: obesity, sleep apnea, cervical and lumbar spine
impairment, a right knee impairment, and a mood disorder.
declined to find that Rios's alleged thyroid disorder and
asthma are severe impairments, reasoning that both are well
controlled with medication and impose only a minimal effect
on Rios's ability to work. [Id] Substantial
evidence supports this conclusion, which Rios does not
challenge. (See R 76)
three, ALJ O'Leary stated that Rios's impairment or
combination of impairments neither met nor medically equaled
the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R.
Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Id.). With respect
to physical impairments, he concluded after a brief but
satisfactory discussion that Rios's severe impairments do
not meet any of the listed impairments in Section 1.00
(musculoskeletal system impairments), citing a lack of
supporting evidence in Rios's medical record as the basis
for his finding. (Id.)
also found that Rios's mental impairments, alone and in
combination, did not meet or medically equal listing 12.04,
which concerns depressive, bipolar and related
disorders. Here, ALJ O'Leary offered a lengthy
written evaluation of the evidence. First, with respect to
Paragraph B criteria, he observed that Rios has only mild
limitations in daily living; "she is able to attend to
self-care tasks, cook, clean, shop, drive, and negotiate
public transportation independently." (R 29 (citing R
230-237, 246-253, 583-586)
O'Leary concluded that Rios also has only mild
difficulties in social functioning. Although Rios reported
that she does not socialize, the report of Dr. Perdomo, a
consultative psychologist, indicates that Rios participates
in group therapy; is organized, focused, and uses coherent
and relevant speech; and shows no psychosis or disordered
thought. (R 29 (citing R 583-586) The ALJ also observed that
state psychological examiners concluded that Rios is not
significantly limited in her ability to work in coordination
with or near others. (R 29; see R 74-78)
ALJ O'Leary found that Rios has moderate difficulties in
concentration, persistence, and pace. He based this finding
primarily on state psychological examiners' reports. The
state examiners reported that Rios is moderately limited in
her ability to maintain attention and concentration, perform
activities on-schedule, and perform at a consistent pace. (R
29 (citing R 66-80, 82-97)) In contrast, Dr. Perdomo's
report showed Rios to have only mild impairment in short-term
memory, good long-term memory, fair concentration, and
orientation to time, place, and person. (R 29; see R
583-585) ALJ O'Leary also observed that Rios has
experienced no extended periods of decompensation. (R 29)
evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion concerning the
Paragraph B criteria. A claimant meets Listing 12.04,
however, if her medical evidence satisfies the Paragraph A
and B criteria or the Paragraph A and C criteria.
(See n.2, supra)
the ALJ also determined that Rios's medical evidence
failed to support Paragraph C findings. He found that
Rios's mental impairments have not caused "repeated
episodes of decompensation, a residual disease process
resulting in marginal adjustment, or a history of inability
to function outside of a highly supportive living
arrangement." (R 29) Having reviewed the record
evidence, I find that substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's finding that the Paragraph C criteria are not met,
even in light of the revised criteria. (See 20
C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, Listing 12.04;
cf. R. 77 ("[Claimant] can learn and perform
simple, routine tasks."); R 78 (indicating no
limitations or only moderate impairments in various
4 - RFC and Ability to Perform Past Work
Next, ALJ O'Leary defined Rios's RFC as follows:
[T]he claimant has the [RFC] to perform light work as
defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except the claimant is limited
to frequent but not continuous fine fingering and
manipulation with the right hand, no limitation with the left
hand. The ...