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Rios v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 23, 2017

NILDA RIOS, Plaintiff,


          KEVIN MCNULTYXS United States District Judge

         Nilda 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Rios applied for SSI benefits on February 11, 2013, alleging a February 16, 2009 onset of disability (R 201-207).[1]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 42-64).

         ALJ 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. § 405(g).


         To 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).

         A. Five-Step Process and this Court's Standard of Review

         Under 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 as follows:

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.

         For the 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)).

         This 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).

         Remand 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:

         Step 1

         At step one, ALJ O'Leary found that Rios had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the application date of February 11, 2013. (R 28)

         Step 2

         At step 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. [Id.)

         The ALJ 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)

         Step 3

         At step 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.)

         The ALJ 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.[2] 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)

         ALJ 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)

         Next, 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)

         Substantial 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)

         Therefore, 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 "adaptation limitations")).

         Step 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 ...

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