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Favors v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

February 26, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,, Defendant.



         Ms. Laquanda Favors 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 and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34, and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"), 42 U.S.C. § 1381.

         The issue presented is whether the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") to deny Favors's application for DIB and SSI is supported by substantial evidence. Favors argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the various medical opinions in the record and reached contradictory conclusions.

         For the reasons stated below, this Court affirms the ALJ's decision.

         I. Background

         Favors seeks to reverse the ALJ's finding that she did not meet die Social Security Act's definition of disabled from April 15, 2012, the alleged onset date, through March 9, 2017, the date of the ALJ's decision. (R. 24).[1]

         On September 12, 2013, Favors applied for DIB under Title II, alleging that she suffered from bipolar disorder. (R. 79, 180-88). On April 9, 2014, Favors applied for SSI under Title XVI, alleging a disability onset date of April 15, 2012. (R. 191-97). Her application was denied on February 4, 2014 (R. 79-91), and upon reconsideration on October 14, 2014. (R. 92-123).

         On January 6, 2017, Favors appeared before the ALJ with a non-attorney representative and testified. (R. 11, 30, 32). Daniel Wolstein, a vocational expert *("VE"}, also testified. (Id.). After the hearing, the ALJ held the record open for seven days to allow for the submission of additional medical records, which Favors submitted and the ALJ considered in rendering his opinion. (R. 11).

         On March 9, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Favors was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. 11-24). The ALJ determined that Favors's mental impairments (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and personality disorder) were severe, but not of listing-level severity. (R. 14-16). The ALJ concluded that Favors, given her residual functional capacity ("RFC"), was able to perform work existing in the national economy. (R. 16-24).

         II. Standard

         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 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 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 Administration has established a five-step evaluation process for determining whetiier 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 die 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, tiiey 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." 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).

         When there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual findings, 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 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).

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ followed the five-step process in determining that Favors was not disabled from April 15, 2012, the alleged onset date, through March 9, 2017, the date of the ALJ's decision. The ALJ's findings may be summarized as follows:

         Step 1: At step one, the ALJ determined that Favors had not engaged in substantial gainful activity in the relevant period. (R. 13).

         Step 2: At step two, the ALJ determined that Favors had the following severe impairments: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and personality disorder. (R. 14).

         Step 3: At step three, the ALJ determined that Favors did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that met or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, subpt. P., app. 1. (R. 14-16). Under Section 12.00 of Appendix 1 ("Mental Disorders"), the ALJ concluded that Favors's impairments did not cause at least two "marked" limitations, or one "extreme" limitation, under the Paragraph B criteria for mental functioning. (Id.).

         To satisfy the Paragraph B criteria, a claimant's mental disorder must result in an extreme limitation of one, or a marked limitation of two, of the four Paragraph B areas of mental functioning. Of the four areas evaluated for mental functioning, the ALJ found a marked limitation in only one area - interaction with others. (R. 15). The other three other areas of mental functioning that are considered in evaluating an impairment are the claimant's ability to (1) understand, remember, or apply information; (2) concentrate, persist, or maintain pace; and (3) adapt or manage oneself. The ALJ determined that in those three areas, Favors had only moderate limitations. (R. 14-15).

         Step 4: At step four, the ALJ concluded that Favors had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") "to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: The claimant is able to understand, remember and carry out simple instructions with only occasional changes to essential job functions." (R. 16). The ALJ further determined that Favors is "able to make simple work-related decisions." (R. 16). The ALJ found that Favors is able to occasionally interact with supervisors and coworkers, but cannot work on a team or with other coworkers, and cannot work with the public. (R. 17).

         The ALJ also concluded that Favors was unable to perform past work, which included work as a fast food manager or worker, waitress or cashier. (R. 22).

         Step 5: At step five, the ALJ considered Favors's age (28), education (completed high school), and work experience in conjunction with the Medical-Vocational Guidelines. (R. 23). Relying on the testimony of the VE, Daniel Wolstein, the ALJ identified several representative unskilled jobs Favors could perform despite her limitations: (1) cleaner housekeeper (Director of Occupational Titles ("DOT") #323.687-014); (2) sorter - agricultural products (DOT #529.687-186); and (3) laundry worker (DOT #361.684-014). The ALJ also determined, based on expert's testimony, that a significant number of these jobs were available nationally. (R. 23-24).

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Favors was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 15, 2012 through March 9, 2017. (R. 24).

         III. ...

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