United States District Court, D. New Jersey
MCNULTY United States District Judge.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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).
The Five-Step Process and this Court's Standard of
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 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.
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
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.").
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).
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
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,