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Garman v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

September 29, 2017

Nicole M. Garman, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         THIS matter comes before the Court upon an appeal by Plaintiff Nicole M. Garman (the “Plaintiff”) of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for social security disability benefits for the period beginning January 29, 2010. (Compl. ¶ 5) [Dkt. No. 1]. For the reasons set forth below, the Court vacates the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) and remands for proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

         I. Disability Defined

         The Social Security Act defines “disability” as the inability “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act further states that:

[A]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner has promulgated a five-step, sequential analysis for evaluating a claimant's disability, as outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). In Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999) the Third Circuit described the Commissioner's inquiry at each step of this analysis, as follows:

In step one, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). If a claimant is found to be engaged in substantial activity, the disability claim will be denied. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987).
In step two, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant fails to show that his impairments are “severe, ” he is ineligible for disability benefits.
In step three, the Commissioner compares the medical evidence of the claimant's impairment to a list of impairments presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If a claimant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its equivalent, the analysis proceeds to steps four and five.
Step four requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity to perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating an inability to return to his past relevant work. Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). If the claimant is unable to resume his former occupation, the evaluation moves to the final step.
At this [fifth] stage, the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, who must demonstrate the claimant is capable of performing other available work in order to deny a claim of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). The ALJ must show there are other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy which the claimant can perform, consistent with his medical impairments, age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity. The ALJ must analyze the cumulative effect of all the claimant's impairments in determining whether he is capable of performing work and is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523. The ALJ will often seek the assistance of a vocational expert at this fifth step. See Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 218 (3d Cir. 1984).

         II. Background

         The Court recites only the facts that are necessary to its determination on appeal, which is limited to the weight afforded to the opinions of two doctors in the ALJ's calculation of Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) and whether there are a “significant number” of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff is capable of performing.

         A. Brief Medical History

         Plaintiff was born on April 10, 1979, and was 30 years old on the alleged date of disability onset, January 29, 2010. (Administrative Record “A.R.” 187, 12). Plaintiff suffers from mitochondrial disorder which, according to her testimony, was exacerbated when her infant son died in January, 2010, and has never remitted. (Id. at 46). Plaintiff also complains of spinal deformity at L4-L5, chronic pain, joint inflammation, chronic severe fatigue, anxiety, and depression. (Id. at 46-47, 223). Prior to the alleged disability onset date, Plaintiff was working as a medical records coder. (Id. at 204).

         In her Adult Function Report, completed October 27, 2012, (Id. at 212-219), Plaintiff indicated that she required her parents' help caring for her children. (Id. at 213). Plaintiff also indicated that she was tired all the time and needed daily naps, needed help remembering what medication she had and had not taken, and could no longer handle her family's finances. (Id. at 214-15). Plaintiff did not, however, note any issues with personal care, and she could still cook, clean, and do laundry. (Id. at 213, 215). She engages in limited social activity, including using social media daily, speaking to her parents and siblings, and attending church twice a month, but has anxiety and cannot be around large crowds. (Id. at 216). Physically, Plaintiff claims to have had issues walking, lifting, squatting, climbing stairs, sitting, and using her hands. (Id.)

         Beginning on February 10, 2011, Plaintiff's primary care physician has been Dr. Phillip Varner, D.O. (Id. at 306). In her new patient evaluation, Dr. Varner found Plaintiff positive for fatigue, back pain and joint pain, dizziness, headaches, memory loss, weakness, anxiety, depression, and difficulty concentrating, among other things. (Id.) Plaintiff visited Dr. Varner on at least ten occasions between February 2011 and August 2013. (Id. 306-28, 377, 380). During these visits, Plaintiff presented with a variety of symptoms including (in addition to those listed after Plaintiff's initial visit) difficulty walking, hands shaking, wrist pain, decreased range of motion in the bilateral hip and knees, and tenderness in both knees. (Id.)

         On December 12, 2012, Dr. Ronald Bagner, M.D., performed a consultative examination of Plaintiff. (A.R. 370). Dr. Bagner's impression was that Plaintiff had a “lumbosacral strain, ” walked with a slow, but normal gait, and did not appear uncomfortable sitting or performing simple physical tasks such as getting on and off of the examination table. (Id. at 371).

         On December 18, 2012, Dr. Theodore Brown, Ph.D., conducted a consultative mental status examination of Plaintiff. (Id. at 365). Dr. Brown noted that Plaintiff was “pleasant and cooperative throughout the [e]xamination, ” but ...

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