United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage
RENÉE MARIE BUMB UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
matter comes before the Court upon an appeal by Plaintiff
Lisa Almeida-Fortunato (the “Plaintiff”) of the
final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security
(the “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's
application for disability insurance benefits
(“DIB”) and social security supplemental income
(“SSI”) for the period beginning June 26, 2012.
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).
recitation of the Plaintiff's medical history contained
in the ALJ's 22 page opinion is near exhaustive. This
Court, however, recites the facts that are necessary to its
determination on appeal, which is limited to the weight
afforded to the opinion of Dr. Mintzer, a state-agency
psychiatrist, in the ALJ's calculation of Plaintiff's
Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), and whether
the ALJ considered all of Plaintiff's medically
Brief Medical History
was born on July 25, 1967 and was 44 years old on the alleged
date of disability onset, June 26, 2012. (Administrative
Record “R.” 86). Until that date, Plaintiff was
employed as a “Human Services Assistant” at
Ancora Psychiatric Hospital. (R. 441). Plaintiff testified --
and the medical evidence reflects to various extents -- that
she suffers from a number of physical and mental impairments.
primary concern appears to be a sensitivity to certain
chemicals, which she testified has caused open sores (or
burns) to develop throughout her body. (Id. at
53-55, 63-64, 66). In early 2015, Dr. Karen Calabrese, D.O.,
indicated that Plaintiff may suffer from Multiple Chemical
Sensitivity Syndrome. (Id. at 690, 786). Plaintiff
testified that she is not entirely clear on which chemicals
cause this reaction, and that her condition fluctuates from
day to day, at times being exacerbated by the weather.
(Id. at 59, 61, 62, 64, 67). These chemical burns,
Plaintiff testified, were the driving force behind her
“falling apart” at work and ultimately losing her
job. (Id. 54).
has also complained of, among other things: joint pain and
stiffness, (Id. at 60-61, 74, 299-301, 304, 326,
327); chronic headaches (Id. at 651, 666, 668, 678,
683, 750, 753, 764, 825); problems hearing and breathing,
(Id. at 50, 302, 322, 323, 326); lyme disease,
(Id. at 17); MRSA, (Id.); anxiety,
depression, and panic attacks, (Id.); GERD,
(Id.); mitral valve prolapse, (Id.);
attention deficit disorder (“ADD”),
(Id.); COPD, (Id.); and malnutrition,
(Id.). The ALJ's assignment of severity to these
various ailments is discussed below.
State Agency Consultant Assessments
underwent two consultative examinations with state-agency
psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Mintzer. The first of these
examinations took place on May 13, 2014, and the second on
December 14, 2015. (Id. 566-69, 884-87).
first consultation, Dr. Mintzer performed a mental status
examination and noted that Plaintiff
was oriented to person, place, and time. She was casually
dressed and adequately groomed. . . . [she]seemed depressed;
for instance, she became tearful near the end of my interview
with her. [Plaintiff]'s affect was somewhat constricted.
[She] has ...