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Rivera v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 13, 2017

JENNY RIVERA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION

          KEVIN MCNULTY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Ms. Jenny Rivera brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1333(c)(3) to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her claims to Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401-34 and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"), 42 U.S.C. § 1381. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. Rivera seeks to reverse a finding that she did not meet the Social Security Act's definition of disability from January 29, 2011 to February 27, 2014-the date of her fiftieth birthday. (R. 32).[1]

         Rivera applied for DIB on September 15, 2011 and SSI on July 19, 2013. (R. 204-11). Rivera stated that she had been unable to work since January 29, 2011 because of multiple impairments. (R. 225, 228). The specific symptoms include pain resulting from a 2007 motor vehicle accident, anxiety, and depression. (R. 228). Rivera's application was denied by New Jersey Disability Determination Services on June 26, 2012, and on reconsideration on April 11, 2013. (R. 106-35).

         On August 15, 2014, Rivera appeared with counsel, Agnes Wladyka, at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Richard West. (R. 43-87). Mary Anderson, a vocational expert, testified. (R. 82-87). On March 4, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Jenny Rivera was not disabled from January 29, 2011 to February 27, 2014, when she attained the age of 50. (R. 25-32). However, the ALJ determined, by application of Medical-Vocational Guidelines ("GRIDS"), that Rivera has been disabled since February 28, 2014. (R. 32). The GRIDS are tables that set forth presumptions of whether significant numbers of jobs exist in the national economy for a claimant. 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app.2. These presumptions vary based on a claimant's age, education, work experience, and work capability. Id. When Rivera turned fifty on February 28, 2014, her age classification changed, and the GRIDS labeled her presumptively unable to perform work found in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 32).

         On May 11, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Rivera's request for review (R. 1-5), rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Rivera then appealed to this Court, challenging the ALJ's determination that she was not disabled from January 29, 2011 to February 27, 2014.

         II. DISCUSSION

         To qualify for DIB or SSI, 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. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382, 1382c(a)(3)(A), (B); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a); see Illig v. Comm'r Soc. Sec, 570 Fed.Appx. 262, 264 (3d Cir. 2014); Diaz u. 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 One: 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 Two: 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 Three: 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 Four: 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(e)-(f)- If not, move to step five.
Step Five: At this point, the burden shifts to the Commissioner 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 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. Barnhart, 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." Zimsak 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 than 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 Fed.Appx. 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 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). It is also proper to remand where the ALJ's findings are not the product of a complete review which "explicitiy weigh[s] ...


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