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Tietjen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 18, 2018

LORI TIETJEN, Plaintiff,



         Before this Court is Lori Tietjen's (“Tietjen” or “Plaintiff”) appeal from the final decision of Nancy Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”), [1] denying her application for disability insurance benefits. Having reviewed the administrative record and the submissions filed in connection with the appeal pursuant to Local Civil Rule 9.1, and having declined to hold oral argument pursuant to Federal Civil Rule 78(b), for the reasons set forth below and for good cause shown, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. Background

         On December 30, 2013, Tietjen protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and Social Security Disability (“SSDI”) alleging disability commencing on September 1, 2009 due to Epstein-Barr Syndrome, slipped discs in her neck, chronic fatigue, sciatica, and limited mobility. (Tr. 61-62.) The claim was denied on March 6, 2014, and upon reconsideration on May 5, 2014. (Tr. 79-80; 101-02.) On May 13, 2014, Tietjen filed a written request for a hearing. (Tr. 12-25.) Tietjen appeared and testified at the hearing held before ALJ Sharon Allard on April 19, 2016. (Id.)

         On July 21, 2016, ALJ Allard issued an opinion determining: (1) Tietjen meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013; (2) Tietjen has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 11, 2013, the “amended onset date;” (3) Tietjen has one severe impairment: disorders of the spine; (4) Tietjen does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart B, Appendix 1; (5) Tietjen has the “residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a)” except that Tietjen can “only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, ” can occasionally “kneel, stoop, and crouch, ” and will be 10% off task for the workday due to her impairment; (6) Tietjen is capable of performing past relevant work as a collections clerk as it “does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by [Teitjen]'s residual functional capacity;” and (7) Tietjen has “not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 11, 2013, through the date of this decision.” (Tr. 17-21.)

         On August 4, 2016, Tietjen requested review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration. (Tr. 184.) On August 15, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Tietjen's request for review. (Tr. 1-5.) Therefore, having exhausted her administrative remedies, Tietjen brought an appeal before this Court on October 9, 2017. (ECF No. 1.)

         II. Standard of Review

         On a review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, a district court “shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Matthews v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 589, 592 (3d Cir. 2001). The Commissioner's decisions regarding questions of fact are deemed conclusive by a reviewing court if supported by “substantial evidence in the record.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Knepp v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 78, 83 (3d Cir. 2000). This Court must affirm an ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). To determine whether an ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, this Court must review the evidence in its totality. Daring v. Heckler, 727 F.2d 64, 70 (3d Cir. 1984). However, this Court may not “weigh the evidence or substitute its conclusions for those of the fact-finder.” Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992) (citation omitted). Accordingly, this Court may not set an ALJ's decision aside, “even if [it] would have decided the factual inquiry differently.” Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999) (citations omitted).

         III. The Five-Step Sequential Evaluation Process

         Under the Social Security Act, the Social Security Administration is authorized to pay Social Security Insurance to “disabled” persons. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a). A person is “disabled” if “he is unable 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). A person is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity when his physical or mental impairments are “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         Regulations promulgated under the Social Security Act establish a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(1). First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has shown that he or she is not currently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Id. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146-47 n.5 (1987). If a claimant is presently engaged in any form of substantial gainful activity, he or she is automatically denied disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b); see also Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140. Second, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has demonstrated a “severe impairment” or “combination of impairments” that significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c); see Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146-47 n.5. Basic work activities are defined as “the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b). These activities include physical functions such as “walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying or handling.” Id. A claimant who does not have a severe impairment is not considered disabled. Id. at § 404.1520(c); see Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999).

         Third, if the impairment is found to be severe, the ALJ then determines whether the impairment meets or is equal to the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P., App. 1 (the “Impairment List”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant demonstrates that his or her impairments are equal in severity to, or meet those on the Impairment List, the claimant has satisfied his or her burden of proof and is automatically entitled to benefits. See Id. at §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d); see also Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146-47 n.5. If the specific impairment is not listed, the ALJ will consider in his or her decision the impairment that most closely satisfies those listed for purposes of deciding whether the impairment is medically equivalent. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526(a). If there is more than one impairment, the ALJ then must consider whether the combination of impairments is equal to any listed impairment. Id. An impairment or combination of impairments is basically equivalent to a listed impairment if there are medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar. Williams, 970 F.2d at 1186.

         If the claimant is not conclusively disabled under the criteria set forth in the Impairment List, step three is not satisfied, and the claimant must prove at step four whether he or she retains the “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) to perform his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f), 416.920(e)-(f); Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141. Step four involves three sub-steps:

(1) the ALJ must make specific findings of fact as to the claimant's [RFC]; (2) the ALJ must make findings of the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work; and (3) the ALJ must compare the [RFC] to the past relevant work to determine whether claimant ...

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