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Fernandes-Moreira v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 2, 2017

SONIA T. FERNANDES-MOREIRA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION

          JOSE L. LINARES Chief Judge, United States District Court

         This matter comes before the Court upon the appeal of Sonia T. Fernandes-Moreira ("Plaintiff) from the final decision of the Commissioner ("Defendant") upholding Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Dennis O'Leary's denial of Plaintiffs application for disability insurance benefits ("DIBs") under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). The Court resolves this matter on the parties' briefs pursuant to Local Civil Rule 9.1(f). The Court has reviewed the parties' submissions, and, for the following reasons, affirms the ALJ's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         The Court writes for the parties, who are familiar with the facts and procedural history of the case. The Court, therefore, specifically addresses only those facts relevant to the issues raised on appeal.

         On October 23, 2012, Plaintiff applied for DIBs, alleging disability as of December 1, 2011 caused by tetany (muscle spasms), angioedema (hives defined by pronounced swelling), "R." refers to the Administrative Record, which uses continuous pagination and can be found at ECF No. 5.numbness, autoimmune disorder, recurrent urinary tract infection, anxiety, and scoliosis. (R. at 214, 436-46). At the time of her initial disability, Plaintiff was 30 years old. (R. at 74). Plaintiff has a high school diploma and past work experience as a realtor from 2007 to the onset of her disability in December 2011, a customer service manager from 2005 to 2006, and a customer service coordinator from 2002 to 2005. (R. at 215). Upon review of her application, the New Jersey state agency denied her claims at the initial level of administrative review and again on reconsideration of administrative review. (R. at 85-112). The agency concluded that Plaintiff either had no severe impairment or could return to her past relevant sedentary work as a cashier. (R at 85 112).

         At Plaintiffs request, ALJ O'Leary held a hearing on May 1, 2014. (R. at 70-112). The ALJ held a supplemental hearing on September 17, 2014, at which Plaintiff, Dr. Martin Fechner, a medical expert ("ME"), and Tanya Edghill, a vocational expert ("VE"), testified. (R. at 44-69). Subsequent to the second hearing, the ALJ proffered the VE interrogatories. (R. at 262 -71). On December 4, 2014, the ALJ issued a Decision-Unfavorable, finding that Plaintiff could perform a range of sedentary work, including her past relevant work as a customer service representative and, therefore, was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. at 18-30). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request to review the ALJ's findings. (R. at 114). Accordingly, Plaintiff brought the pending action before this Court.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A reviewing court will uphold the Commissioner's factual decisions if they are supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000). "Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, " and "[i]t is less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla." Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004). Additionally, under the Act, disability must be established by objective medical evidence. To this end, "[a]n individual's statement as to pain or other symptoms shall not alone be conclusive evidence of disability as defined in this section." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A). Instead, a finding that one is disabled requires:

[M]edical signs and findings, established by medically acceptable clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques, which show the existence of a medical impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged and which, when considered with all evidence required to be furnished under this paragraph . . . would lead to a conclusion that the individual is under a disability.

Id.; 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(A). Factors to consider in determining how to weigh evidence from medical sources include: (1) the examining relationship; (2) the treatment relationship, including the length, frequency, nature, and extent of the treatment; (3) the supportability of the opinion; (4)its consistency with the record as a whole; and (5) the specialization of the individual giving the opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).

         The "substantial evidence standard is a deferential standard of review." Jones, 364 F.3d at 503. The ALJ is required to "set forth the reasons for his decision" and not merely make conclusory unexplained findings. Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 220 F.3d 112, 119 (3d Cir.2000). But, if the ALJ's decision is adequately explained and supported, the Court is not "empowered to weigh the evidence or substitute its conclusions for those of the fact-finder." Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992). It does not matter if this Court "acting de novo might have reached a different conclusion" than the Commissioner. Monsour Med. Ctr.v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-91 (3d Cir. 1986)). Finally, the Third Circuit has made clear that "Burnett does not require the ALJ to use particular language or adhere to a particular format in conducting his [or her] analysis. Rather, the function of Burnett is to ensure that there is sufficient development of the record and explanation of findings to permit meaningful review." Jones, 364 F.3d at 505.

         III. THE FIVE STEP PROCESS AND THE ALJ'S DECISION

         A claimant's eligibility for benefits is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 1382. Pursuant to the Act, a claimant is eligible for benefits if he meets the income and resource limitations of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1382(a)(1)(A)-(B) and demonstrates that he is disabled based on an "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. § 423(d)(1)(A). A person is disabled only if his physical or mental impairment(s) 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 work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Third Circuit has summarized "the five step sequential evaluation for determining whether a claimant is under a disability, as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520" 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. ยง 404.1520(c). If the claimant fails to show that her impairments are "severe, " she ...

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