United States District Court, D. New Jersey
MCNULTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Cherice Morris brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) to review a final decision of
the Commissioner of Social Security
("Commissioner") denying her claims to Disability
Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the
Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34, and
Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"), 42 U.S.C.
§ 1381. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of
the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is REMANDED.
Morris seeks to reverse a finding that she did not meet the
Social Security Act's definition of disability from June
17, 2011 to May 19, 2015. (Pl. Br. I). Ms. Morris
applied for DIB and SSI on February 28, 2013. (R. 11, 168-
75). In both applications, she alleged disability beginning
June 17, 2011. (R. 11, 168-75). These claims were denied
initially on June 4, 2013, and upon reconsideration on July
29, 2013. (R. 11, 114-19, 121-26). On August 2, 2013, Ms,
Morris submitted a written request for a hearing. (R. 11). On
October 28, 2014, Ms. Morris appeared and testified at a
hearing before ALJ Meryl L. Lissek. (R. 11-20, 29-67). Also
in attendance was Ms. Morris's mother, Ms. Rhonda Morris.
(R. 11, 29). Ms. Morris was not represented by an attorney or
other representative at the hearing. (R. 11). On May 19,
2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision which found her
"not disabled" for purposes of the Social Security
Act. (R. 11-20).
Morris sought review from the Appeals Council. (R. 1-6,
333-35). The Appeals Council found that there were no grounds
for further review. (R. 1-5). Ms. Morris then appealed to
this Court, challenging the ALJ's determination that she
was not disabled from June 17, 2011 to May 19, 2015. (Pl. Br.
qualify for DIB or SSI, a claimant must meet income and
resource limitations and show that she 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 deatii 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
Rlig v. Comm'r Soc. Sec, 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. Bamhart,
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." Zimsak 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. Bamhart, 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));
Zimsak, 777 F.3d at 610-11 ("[W]e are mindful
that we must not substitute our own judgment for that of the
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.
Comm'r of Soc Sec, 235 Fed.Appx. 853, 865-66 (3d
is proper if the record is incomplete, or if there is a lack
of substantial evidence to support a definitive finding on
one or more steps of the five-step inquiry. See
Podedworny, 745 F.2d at 221-22. Remand is also proper if
the ALJ's decision lacks adequate reasoning or support
for its conclusions, or if it contains illogical or
contradictory findings. See Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec, 220 F.3d 112, 119-20 (3d Cir. 2000). It is also
proper to remand where the ALJ's findings are not the
product of a complete review which "explicitiy weigh[s]
all relevant, probative and available evidence" in the
record. Adomo v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 48 (3d Cir.
1994) (internal quotation marks omitted).
The ALJ's Decision
Meryl L. Lissek followed the five-step process in determining
that Ms. Morris was not disabled from June 17, 2011 (the
alleged onset date) to May 19, 2015 (the date of her
hearing). The ALJ's findings may be summarized as
Step One: At step one, the ALJ found that
Ms. Morris had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since June 17, 2011, the alleged onset date. (R. 13).
Step Two: At step two, the ALJ determined
that Ms. Morris had the following severe impairment: cervical
and lumbosacral spine impairment with pain syndrome. (R. 13).
Step Three: At step three, the ALJ found
that Ms. Morris did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, subpt.
P., app. 1. (R. 14). The ALJ gave a one-sentence explanation:
"Section 1.04 was considered." (R. 14).
Step Four: At step four, "[a]fter
careful consideration of the entire record, " the ALJ
found that Ms. Morris had the following RFC:
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except that she cannot climb ladders or scaffolds,
crouch or crawl. She can occasionally climb stairs and ramps.
She is able to do work that can be learned in 30 days or less
and that involves simple instructions. She can have
occasioned contact with supervisors and with the general
public. She can work in proximity of coworkers but not
together with them. She can do work where the routine does
not change throughout the day.
(R. 14-15). The ALJ also determined that Ms. Morris was
unable to perform her past relevant work as a bus driver
(Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT)# 913.463-010).
(R. 18). The demands of that job exceed her RFC. (R. 18).
Five: At step five, the ALJ considered Ms.
Morris's age, education, work experience, and RFC, as
well as the Medical-Vocational Guidelines. (R. 18). The
Medical-Vocational Guidelines are tables that set forth
presumptions of whether significant numbers of jobs exist in
the national economy for a claimant. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404,
subpt. P, app. 2. These presumptions vary based on a
claimant's age, education, work experience, and work
capability. Id. The ALJ determined that Ms. Morris
has been able to perform jobs existing in significant numbers
in the national economy since June 17, 2011. (R. 18-19).
Relying on the opinion of a vocational expert
("VE"), the ALJ identified several representative
jobs that Ms. Morris could perform despite her limitations:
ticket printer and tagger (DOT# 652.685-094), garment folder
(DOT# 789.687-066), and labeler (DOT# 920.687-126). (R. 19).
According to the VE, there are over 400, 000 such jobs
nationally. (R. 19).
the ALJ ultimately determined that Ms. Morris was "not
disabled" for purposes of the Social Security Act. (R.
Analysis of Ms. ...