United States District Court, D. New Jersey
ADRIENNE FREYA JARVIS 800 NORTH KINGS HIGHWAY On behalf of
LANCE LEACH SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION On behalf of
L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.
matter comes before the Court pursuant to Section 205(g) of
the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),
regarding Plaintiff's application for Supplemental
Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the
Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. The issue
before the Court is whether the Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) erred in finding that there was
“substantial evidence” that Plaintiff was not
disabled at any time since her alleged onset date of
disability, November 18, 2013. For the reasons stated below,
this Court will affirm that decision.
BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
November 18, 2013, Plaintiff, Lori Renee Lake, protectively
filed an application for SSI, initially alleging that she
became disabled on December 31, 2008, but she later amended
her alleged onset date to November 18, 2013. Plaintiff claims
that she cannot work, and has no previous gainful employment,
because she suffers from various impairments, including
degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis, status post right
and left knee total replacements, obesity, bipolar disorder,
and panic disorder.
claim was denied initially on September 8, 2011 and then
again on July 10, 2014. Pursuant to Plaintiff's July 18,
2014 written request for a hearing, a hearing was held on
July 21, 2016, and the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on
September 8, 2016. Plaintiff filed a Request for Review by
the Appeals Council, which denied her request on January 10,
2017, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of
the Commissioner. Plaintiff brings this civil action for
review of the Commissioner's decision.
Standard of Review
42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Congress provided for judicial
review of the Commissioner's decision to deny a
complainant's application for social security benefits.
Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995).
A reviewing court must uphold the Commissioner's factual
decisions where they are supported by “substantial
evidence.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3);
Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir.
2001); Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir.
2000); Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d
Cir. 1992). Substantial evidence means more than “a
mere scintilla.” Richardson v. Perales, 402
U.S. 389, 401 (1971)(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. V.
NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It means “such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. The
inquiry is not whether the reviewing court would have made
the same determination, but whether the Commissioner's
conclusion was reasonable. See Brown v. Bowen, 845
F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988).
reviewing court has a duty to review the evidence in its
totality. See Daring v. Heckler, 727 F.2d 64, 70 (3d
Cir. 1984). “[A] court must ‘take into account
whatever in the record fairly detracts from its
weight.'” Schonewolf v. Callahan, 972
F.Supp. 277, 284 (D.N.J. 1997) (quoting Willbanks v.
Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 847 F.2d 301,
303 (6th Cir. 1988) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. V.
NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)).
Commissioner “must adequately explain in the record his
reasons for rejecting or discrediting competent
evidence.” Ogden v. Bowen, 677 F.Supp. 273,
278 (M.D. Pa. 1987) (citing Brewster v. Heckler, 786
F.2d 581 (3d Cir. 1986)). The Third Circuit has held that an
“ALJ must review all pertinent medical evidence and
explain his conciliations and rejections.” Burnett
v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 122 (3d
Cir. 2000). Similarly, an ALJ must also consider and weigh
all of the non-medical evidence before him. Id.
(citing Van Horn v. Schweiker, 717 F.2d 871, 873 (3d
Cir. 1983)); Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 707 (3d
Third Circuit has held that access to the Commissioner's
reasoning is indeed essential to a meaningful court review:
Unless the [Commissioner] has analyzed all evidence and has
sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously
probative exhibits, to say that his decision is supported by
substantial evidence approaches an abdication of the
court's duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to
determine whether the conclusions reached are rational.
Gober v. Matthews, 574 F.2d 772, 776 (3d Cir. 1978).
Although an ALJ, as the fact finder, must consider and
evaluate the medical evidence presented, Fargnoli,
247 F.3d at 42, “[t]here is no requirement that the ALJ
discuss in its opinion every tidbit of evidence included in
the record, ” Hur v. Barnhart, 94 F. App'x
130, 133 (3d Cir. 2004). In terms of judicial review, a
district court is not “empowered to weigh the evidence
or substitute its conclusions for those of the
fact-finder.” Williams, 970 F.2d at 1182.
However, apart from the substantial evidence inquiry, a
reviewing court is entitled to satisfy itself that the
Commissioner arrived at his decision by application of the
proper legal standards. Sykes, 228 F.3d at 262;
Friedberg v. Schweiker, 721 F.2d 445, 447 (3d Cir.
1983); Curtin v. Harris, 508 F.Supp. 791, 793
Standard for Disability Insurance Benefits
Social Security Act defines “disability” for
purposes of an entitlement to a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits 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 12
months. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Under
this definition, a Plaintiff qualifies as disabled only if
his physical or mental impairments are of such severity that
he is not only unable to perform his past relevant work, but
cannot, given his age, education, and work experience, engage
in any other type of substantial gainful work which exists in
the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists
in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a
specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be
hired if he applied for work. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B)
Commissioner has promulgated regulations for determining
disability that require application of a five-step sequential
analysis. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. This
five-step process is summarized as follows:
1. If the claimant currently is engaged in substantial
gainful employment, he will be found “not
2. If the claimant does not suffer from a “severe
impairment, ” he will be found “not
3. If the severe impairment meets or equals a listed
impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1
and has lasted or is expected to last for a
continuous period of at least twelve months, the claimant
will be found “disabled.”
4. If the claimant can still perform work he has done in the
past (“past relevant work”) despite the severe
impairment, he will ...