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Luna v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 14, 2017

ANGEL SANTIAGO LUNA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION

          KEVIN MCNULTY United States District Judge.

         Angel Santiago Luna brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his claims to Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALT) is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Mr. Santiago Luna seeks to reverse an ALJ's finding that he was not disabled from July 10, 2011, the alleged onset date, through February 11, 2015, the date of the ALJ's decision. (R. 22-31).[1]

         Santiago Luna completed his application for DIB on January 9, 2013, alleging that he has been disabled since a July 10, 2011 accident. (R. 92, 104). The specific disabilities alleged were plates and screws in his left tibia/knee, depression, and high blood pressure. (R. 92-102). Santiago Luna's application was denied on June 12, 2013 (R. 92), and upon reconsideration on October 15, 2013. (R. 103).

         On December 5, 2014, Santiago Luna appeared with counsel, Agnes Wladyka, at a hearing before ALJ John Giannopoulos. (R. 22-31, 38). Brian J. Daly, a vocational expert, testified. (R. 59-65). On February 11, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Santiago Luna not disabled under the Act because he was able to perform work existing in the national economy. (R. 22-31). On May 23, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Santiago Luna's request for review, (R. 1-6), rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Santiago Luna then appealed to this Court, challenging the ALJ's determination that he was not disabled from July 10, 2011 through February 11, 2015.

         II. DISCUSSION

         To qualify for Title II DIB benefits, a claimant must meet the insured status requirements of 42 U.S.C. § 423(c). To qualify under that 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).

         A. The 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. 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 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. (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).
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(eHf). If not, move to step five.
Step 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.

         As to 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. Bamhart, 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 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 tiian 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 quotation marks and citations 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)); Zimsak, 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), affirm, modify, or reverse the Commissioner's decision, or it may remand the matter to the Commissioner for a rehearing. Podedworny 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).

         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 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).

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         ALJ Giannopoulos (the "ALJ") properly followed the five-step process in determining that Santiago Luna was not disabled for the period of July 10, 2011 through February 11, ...


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