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Almeida-Fortunato v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

December 29, 2017

Lisa Almeida-Fortunato, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         THIS 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.

         I. Disability Defined

         The 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).

         The 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 disability benefits.
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 step.
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).

         II. Background

         The 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 determinable impairments.

         A. Brief Medical History

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff's 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).

         Plaintiff 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.

         1. State Agency Consultant Assessments

         Plaintiff 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).

         At the 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 ...

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