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Morris v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

January 12, 2018

CHERICE MORRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          KEVIN MCNULTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Ms. 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. 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).[1] 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).

         Ms. 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. 1).

         II. DISCUSSION

         To 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).

         A. The Five-Step Process and This Court's Standard of Review

         Under 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.
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.

         As to 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 prevails.

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 fact finder.").

         This 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 Cir. 2007).

         Remand 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).

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         ALJ 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 follows:

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).

         Step 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).

         Therefore, the ALJ ultimately determined that Ms. Morris was "not disabled" for purposes of the Social Security Act. (R. 19).

         C. Analysis of Ms. ...


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