United States District Court, D. New Jersey
MIGUEL A. SOTO, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
A. Soto brings this action pursuant to 45 U.S.C. §
405(g) to review a final decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his claims
to Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under
Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401-34.
For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is REMANDED.
Soto seeks to reverse a finding that he did not meet the
Social Security Act's definition of disability from
November 30, 2011 to May 26, 2015. (PI. Br.
1-2). Mr. Soto applied for DIB on May 22, 2013,
alleging a disability onset date of November 30, 2011. (R.
28, 168-69). He reports being treated for lumbar
decompression in April 2010, which was exacerbated by a March
2012 motor vehicle accident. (R. 253-54, 293, 300, 384). His
claimed was denied initially on July 9, 2013 and upon
reconsideration on October 4, 2013. (R. 28, 68-86).
Soto filed a written request for a hearing on November 14,
2013, which was held on March 6, 2015. (R. 28, 41-68). The
attendees at the hearing were ALJ Shillin, Mr. Soto's
attorney Jacob Neff, vocational expert ("VE") Brian
J. Daly, and translator Sergio Garcia. (R. 28, 36). On May,
26, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision which found him "not
disabled" for the purposes of the Social Security Act.
November 30, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Mr. Soto's
request for review, (R. 1-4), rendering the ALJ's
decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Mr. Soto
then appealed to this Court, challenging the ALJ's
determination that he was not disabled from November 30, 2011
to May 26, 2015. (PL Br. 1-2).
qualify for DIB, a claimant must meet income and resource
limitations and show that he is unable to engage in
substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically
determinable physical or mental impairment that can be
expected to result in death or that 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), 1382,
1382c(a)(3)(A), (B); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a); see
Illig v. Comm'r Soc. Sea, 570 Fed.Appx. 262, 264 (3d
Cir. 2014); Diaz v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 577 F.3d
500, 503 (3d Cir. 2009).
The Five-Step Process and This Court's Standard of
the authority of the Social Security Act, the Social Security
Administration has established a five-step evaluation process
for determining whether a claimant is entitled to benefits.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. This Court's
review necessarily incorporates a determination of whether
the ALJ properly followed the five-step process prescribed by
regulation. The steps may be briefly summarized as follows:
Step One: Determine whether the claimant has
engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date
of the alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If not, move to step two.
Step Two: Determine if the claimant's
alleged impairment, or combination of impairments, is
"severe." Id. §§ 404.1520(c),
416.920(c). If the claimant has a severe impairment, move to
Step Three: Determine whether the impairment
meets or equals the criteria of any impairment found in the
Listing of Impairments. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1,
Pt. A. (Those Part A criteria are purposely set at a high
level to identify clear cases of disability without further
analysis.) If so, the claimant is automatically eligible to
receive benefits; if not, move to step four. Id.
§§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d).
Step Four: Determine whether, despite any
severe impairment, the claimant retains the Residual
Functional Capacity ("RFC") to perform past
relevant work. Id. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f),
416.920(e)-(f). If not, move to step five.
Step Five: At this point, the burden shifts
to the Commissioner to demonstrate that the claimant,
considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, is
capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers
in the national economy. 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). If so, benefits will be
denied; if not, they will be awarded.
all legal issues, this Court conducts a plenary review.
See Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 181 F.3d
429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). As to factual findings, this Court
adheres to the ALJ's findings, as long as they are
supported by substantial evidence. Jones v.
Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing 42
U.S.C. § 405(g)). Where facts are disputed, this Court
will "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 such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion." Zirnsak v. Colvin, 777 F.3d 607,
610 (3d Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks and citation
omitted). Substantial evidence "is more than a mere
scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of
the evidence." Id., (internal quotation marks
and citation omitted).
[I]n evaluating whether substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's findings ... leniency should be shown in
establishing the claimant's disability, and ... the
Secretary's responsibility to rebut it should be strictly
construed. Due regard for the beneficent purposes of the
legislation requires that a more tolerant standard be used in
this administrative proceeding than is applicable in a
typical suit in a court of record where the adversary system
Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003)
(internal quotation marks and citations omitted). When there
is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual
findings, however, this Court must abide by them. See
Jones, 364 F.3d at 503 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g));
Zirnsak, 777 F.3d at 610-11 ("[W]e are mindful
that we must not substitute our own judgment for that of die
Court may, under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), affirm, modify, or
reverse the Commissioner's decision, or it may remand the
matter to the Commissioner for a rehearing. Podedworny v.
Harris,745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984); Bordes v.