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Cochran v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 20, 2017

JACQUELINE CLEARY COCHRAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION

          Kevin McNulty, United States District Judge

         The plaintiff, Jacqueline Cleary Cochran, brings this action pursuant to §§ 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), to review a final determination of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA"). That determination denied disability insurance benefits for a claimed period of disability with an onset date of April 1, 2012.

         Ms. Cochran raises several claims of error, the most serious of which involves the ALJ's conclusion that she could perform past relevant work as a Control Board Operator. Because the ALJ found in the alternative that Ms. Cochran could perform other jobs existing in the national economy, any such error, if there was one, was harmless. For the reasons stated herein, I will affirm the determination of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").

         I. Background[1]

         Ms. Cochran suffers from several disorders, including disorders of the female genital organs, a history of cervical and bladder cancers, disorders of the urinary system, pelvic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, abdominal pain, migraines, carpal tunnel syndrome, and musculoskeletal disorders of the spine. (R. 14.) On May 3, 2013, Ms. Cochran filed a Title II application for a period of disability and for disability insurance benefits. (R. 12.) The period of disability was alleged to have begun on April 1, 2012. (Id.) Her claim for benefits was denied on August 1, 2013 and denied again upon reconsideration on October 25, 2013. Ms. Cochran filed a request for a hearing with the ALJ on December 13, 2013. [Id.) She and an impartial vocational expert, Marian D. Anderson, appeared and testified at the hearing, which was held on April 30, 2015. (Id.) The ALJ issued a decision on July 30, 2015, in which she determined that Ms. Cochran was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act for the period at issue. (Id.) Ms. Cochran then filed a request for review by the Appeals Council, which was denied. (R. 1-4.)

         Ms. Cochran argues generally that the ALJ did not have substantial evidence to reach that decision. (PL Br. 5.) She specifically argues that the ALJ erred in her finding that she was not disabled by wrongly finding that she was capable of performing past relevant work as a "Control Board Operator." (Id. at 5-6.) Moreover, she takes issue with the "second hypothetical" posited by the ALJ to the vocational expert, which included a sedentary residual functional capacity and the ability to alternate between sitting and standing every fifteen minutes. (Id.) Ms. Cochran says that the agency cannot "have it both ways"; that is, the ALJ cannot find both that Ms. Cochran functions at a "sedentary and simple job" level, but could return to a "sedentary and semi-skilled" job (i.e., her past relevant work). (Id.)

         The agency responds that Ms. Cochran neither has met the Social Security Act's stringent definition of disability nor has met her burden of proving that she could not return to her past relevant work. (Def. Br. 11-12.) Moreover, it argues that the ALJ appropriately relied on the vocational expert's testimony in finding that Ms. Cochran could return to her past relevant work as a receptionist. (Id. at 12.) It argues in the alternative that the ALJ properly identified other jobs that she could perform notwithstanding her functional limitations. (Id. at 14.)

         II. Analysis

         a. Standard of Review

         For the purposes of a Social Security appeal of a final determination of an ALJ, the Court conducts a plenary review of the legal issues. See Schauck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). The factual findings of the ALJ are reviewed "only to 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 "less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla." Jones v. Bamhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). "It means such relevant evidence reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. When substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's factual findings, this Court must accept the ALJ's determinations. See Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).

         b. First Four Steps and Substantial Evidence

         The SSA, under the authority of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 901, et seq., has laid out a five-step process for evaluating whether a claimant is entitled to receive benefits for a disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Under the first step, the Commissioner determines if the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date of the alleged disability. Id. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). Should this not be the case, the Commissioner then proceeds to the second step to determine whether the claimant's alleged impairment or combination of impairments is "severe." Id. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments is severe, the Commissioner moves onto the third step, where she must inquire whether the impairment meets or equals the criteria of any impairment found in the Listing of Impairments propagated by the SSA. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, Part A. If so, the analysis ends, as the claimant is automatically eligible to receive benefits. Id. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If not, the Commissioner goes to the fourth step. There, she decides whether, despite any severe impairment, the claimant retains the Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") to perform "part relevant work." Id. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f), 416.920(e)-(f)-The claimant bears the burden of proof at each of these first four steps. However, at the fifth step, the SSA has the burden of demonstrating that the claimant is capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy in light of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 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) (citations omitted).

         As to the first step, the ALJ found that Ms. Cochran did not engage in substantial gainful activity from an alleged onset date of April 1, 2012, to her last insured date of December 31, 2013. (R. 14.) She came to this determination by relying on evidence of the claimant's "New Hire, Quarter Wage, Unemployment Query (NDNH), " "Certified Earnings Records, " "Detailed Earnings Query, " and "Summary Earnings Query" from the relevant time period. (R. 14, 186-193.)

         At the second step, the ALJ determined that the impairment or combination of impairments exhibited by Ms. Cochran were severe. (R. 14.) The ALJ found that Ms. Cochran had disorders of the female genital organs, a history of cervical and bladder (urothelial) cancers, disorders of the urinary system, pelvic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, abdominal pain, migraines, carpal tunnel syndrome, and musculoskeletal disorders of the spine. (R. 14.) The ALJ cited the medical record in coming to the conclusion that the evidence supported her finding that these impairments in unison significantly limit her mental and/or physical abilities to do one or more basic work activities. (Id.) The medical record cited contains over twenty medical exhibits, ...


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