United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage
Nicole M. Garman, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
RENÉE MARIE BUMB, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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).
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
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
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).
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.
Brief Medical History
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).
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.
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.
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).
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 ...