United States District Court, D. New Jersey
MCNULTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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.
reasons stated below, this Court affirms the ALJ's
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
The Five-Step Process and This Court's Standard of
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:
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.").
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).
The ALJ's Decision
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:
1: At step one, the ALJ determined that Favors had
not engaged in substantial gainful activity in the relevant
period. (R. 13).
2: At step two, the ALJ determined that Favors had
the following severe impairments: depression, anxiety,
bipolar disorder, and personality disorder. (R. 14).
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.).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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).