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Knauss v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

March 29, 2018

John Knauss, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         THIS matter comes before the Court upon an appeal by Plaintiff John Knauss (the “Plaintiff”) of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) for the period beginning April 17, 2014. 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 his physical or mental impairment or 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, 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).

         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, 186 F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999), 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 (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 his impairments are “severe, ” he 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 his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating an inability to return to his past relevant work. Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). If the claimant is unable to resume his 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 is capable of performing 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 his 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 he 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).

         II. Background

         This Court recites only the facts that are necessary to its determination on appeal, which is limited to the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) consideration of Plaintiff's lumbar radiculopathy and the weight afforded to the opinions of Dr. Pirone and Dr. McLarnon, state-agency physicians, and Dr. Spergel, a consulting psychologist/vocational expert, in the ALJ's calculation of Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”).

         A. Brief Medical History

         Plaintiff was born on January 31, 1961 and was 53 years old on the alleged date of disability onset, April 17, 2014. (Administrative Record “R.” 45, 179). Plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident in 2011, which he testified ultimately led to his inability to work beginning in 2014. (R. 41, 64). Plaintiff testified -- and the medical evidence reflects to various extents -- that he suffers from impairments to his spine as a result of his accident.

         Specifically, Plaintiff has suffered from herniation and stenosis at both the cervical and lumbar levels, (Id. at 334-35, 409-14, 474-77), and cervical and lumbar radiculopathy, (Id. at 444-64, 465-69, 520-23, 563), among other impairments. Plaintiff attempted to combat these issues with injection treatments, but ultimately chose (in accordance with the recommendation of his treating physician) to undergo an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion at ¶ 5-6 and C6-7 in January 2015. (Id. at 535-48, 549-50, 552-68). A lumbar ...

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