United States District Court, D. New Jersey
SOLMA I. PAGAN, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
McNULTY, United States District Judge
Solma Pagan 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.
Pagan seeks to reverse a finding that she did not meet the
Social Security Act's definition of disability from
October 26, 2012 to September 25, 2015. (R. 55; Pl. Br.
Ms. Pagan applied for DIB and SSI on March 11, 2013. (R. 47).
In both applications, she alleged disability beginning
October 26, 2012. (R. 47). These claims were denied
initially on July 30, 2013, and upon reconsideration on
October 30, 2013. (R. 47, 192-205). On November 22, 2013, Ms.
Pagan filed a written request for a hearing. (R. 47, 206-08).
On April 29, 2015, Ms. Pagan appeared and testified at a
hearing before ALJ Richard West. (R. 47, 72-88). Ms. Pagan
was represented at the hearing by Ari Nat. (R. 72-88).
then submitted written interrogatories to Vocational Expert
("VE") Rocco J. Meola. (R. 381-88). The ALJ
forwarded the VE's responses to Ms. Pagan's
then-attorney. (R. 390-99). Ms. Pagan requested a
supplemental hearing about those interrogatories. (R. 401). A
notice was issued for a supplemental hearing on September 4,
2015 at 3:00pm. (R. 253-55). According to Ms. Pagan, she
received a phone call on September 3, 2015 from her
representative, stating that the hearing might be rescheduled
for 11:30am; she would receive a telephone call if the time
changed. (R. 39). At 11:15am on September 4, 2015-
i.e., the day of the hearing-Ms. Pagan allegedly
received a phone call from her attorney, who asked if she was
going to attend the hearing at 11:30am. (R. 39). By that
time, Ms. Pagan was unable to attend the hearing because it
would take her at least thirty minutes to drive to the
hearing office. (R. 39). Ms. Pagan's attorney then
allegedly told her that her appearance was not necessary. (R.
39). The supplemental hearing was held on September 4, 2015
at 10:38am, without Ms. Pagan. (R. 47, 39-40, 74-87). VE
Meola, Ms. Pagan's attorney Timothy Lodge, and ALJ
Richard West attended. (R. 47).
September 25, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision which found her
"not disabled" for purposes of the Social Security
Act. (R. 47-55). Ms. Pagan sought review from the Appeals
Council. (R. 1-4). At this time her attorneys terminated
their relationship with her. (R. 37-38). Ms. Pagan then
contracted with different attorneys. (R. 34; Pl. Br. 3-4).
Additional evidence was submitted to the Appeals Council, (R.
1090-1154), which was not before the ALJ. (Pl. Br. 4). The
Appeals Council found that there were no grounds for further
review. (R. 1-4). Ms. Pagan then appealed to this Court,
challenging the ALJ's determination that she was not
disabled from October 26, 2012 to September 25, 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 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,
l382c(a)(3)(A), (B); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a); see
Ulig 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 die 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. §
4O5(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. 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 ...