United States District Court, D. New Jersey
SONIA T. FERNANDES-MOREIRA, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
L. LINARES Chief Judge, United States District Court
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.
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.
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).
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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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
[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).
"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.
THE FIVE STEP PROCESS AND THE ALJ'S DECISION
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.
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"
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 her
impairments are "severe, " she ...