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Pronchick v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

February 26, 2018


          OPINION [DKT., 1]


         This matter comes before the Court upon an appeal by Plaintiff Gina Pronchick (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 from May 31, 2003 to December 31, 2006 (the “Relevant Period”). 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 [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do her previous work but cannot, considering [her] 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 [she] lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for [her], or whether [she] he would be hired if [she] 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, 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, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (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 her impairments are "severe, " she 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 her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating an inability to return to her past relevant work. Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). If the claimant is unable to resume her 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 can perform 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 her 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 she 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).

Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999).

         II. Background

         This Court recites only the facts that are necessary to its determination on appeal, which is narrow.

         A. Brief Medical History

         The Plaintiff was born on June 11, 1966 and was 36 years old on the alleged date of disability onset, May 1, 2003. (Administrative Record “R.” at 65). The Plaintiff has past relevant work history as a typist and secretary. (R. at 40, 42, 43, 44, 45). At the time of the alleged onset, however, she was a stay at home mother. (R. at 45).

         The Plaintiff lists in her Initial Disability Determination Explanation several ailments including joint pain, fevers, dizzy spells, rash, nausea, fatigue and Lupus. (R. at 65). She testified that that during the Relevant Period[1] she suffered from a combination of weakness in her hands, stiffness in her joints, fatigue, and nausea, which required her to lie down for long periods of time. (R. at 45). Also, during this time, the Plaintiff was pregnant twice. (R. at 169). During the Relevant Period, the Plaintiff had only three non-pregnancy related visits to her Primary Care Physician. (R. at 423). During this period, she found it difficult to stand for long periods of time. (Id.)

         Two years after the Relevant Period, in 2008, the Plaintiff was diagnosed with “probable” Lupus on a serologic series, but “unconfirmed on clinical grounds.” (R. at 355, 535). As of 2009, her Lupus was being treated with Plaquenil. (R. at 407). The Plaintiff's Lupus symptoms and treatments were ongoing as of the date of her hearing before the ALJ, January 9, 2015. (R. at 33).

         B. Treating Physician's Opinions and ...

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