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Suarez v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

May 3, 2018

MICHAEL FRANCIS SUAREZ, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          JOANNE GARDNER GARDNER, ESQUIRE On behalf of Plaintiff

          TIMOTHY PATRICK REILEY SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION REGION III, On behalf of Defendant

          OPINION

          HOLLY B. FITZSIMMONS, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Michael Francis Suarez brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking review of a final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security who denied his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §401 et seq. (“the Act”). Plaintiff has moved for an award of disability benefits or, in the alternative, to reverse the case and remand for a rehearing. The Commissioner has moved to affirm.

         For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

         I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         On December 10, 2012, plaintiff, Michael Francis Suarez, protectively filed an application for DIB, with an alleged onset date of disability of March 1, 2012. [Certified Transcript of the Record, Compiled on July 21, 2016, Doc. #9 (hereinafter “Tr.”) 83]. Plaintiff alleged disability due to “spinal injury-cracked vertebraes-2 herniated discs; depression; nerve damage-extends through legs to feet; and feet feel like [they are] on fire.” [Tr. 136, 146]. His DIB claim was denied initially on April 30, 2013, and upon reconsideration on July 15, 2013. [Tr. 136-44, 146-55]. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on July 24, 2013. [Tr. 83].

         On February 27, 2015, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Marguerite Toland held a hearing, at which plaintiff appeared with an attorney and testified. [Tr. 103-35]. Vocational Expert (“VE”) Mary Ann R. Maraca testified at the hearing. [Tr. 130-34]. On May 29, 2015, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled, and denied his claim. [Tr. 83-99]. Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the hearing decision on June 29, 2015. [Tr. 78]. On May 17, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review, thereby rendering ALJ Toland's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [Tr. 1-4]. The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §405(g).

         Plaintiff, represented by counsel, timely filed this action for review and moves to reverse and/or remand the Commissioner's decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The standard of review for this Court is whether the ALJ's decision is based on substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it is 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)). “Overall, the substantial evidence standard is a deferential standard of review.” Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004); see Woody v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 859 F.2d 1156, 1159 (3d Cir. 1988).

         A reviewing court “must consider the (1) objective medical facts; (2) diagnoses and medical opinions of examining physicians; (3) subjective evidence of pain and disability as described by plaintiff and corroborated by others who have observed him; and (4) plaintiff's age, educational background and work history.” Curtin v. Harris, 508 F.Supp. 791, 793 (D.N.J. 1981). It “need[s] from the ALJ not only an expression of the evidence s/he considered which supports the result, but also some indication of the evidence which was rejected.” Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705-06 (3d Cir. 1981); see Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3d Cir. 2000)(“Although the ALJ may weigh the credibility of the evidence, he must give some indication of the evidence which he rejects and his reason(s) for discounting such evidence.”)(citing Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d. Cir. 1999)). “In the absence of such an indication the reviewing court cannot tell if significant probative evidence was not credited or simply ignored.” Id.

         It is important to note that in reviewing the ALJ's decision, this Court's role is not to start from scratch. The scope of review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings of fact. See Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999) (noting that the circuit court has plenary review of all legal issues, and reviews the administrative law judge's findings of fact to determine whether they are supported by substantial evidence); Plummer, 186 F.3d at 427. “[W]hether there is substantial evidence supporting the appellant's view is not the question here; rather, we must decide whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.” Bonet ex rel. T.B. v. Colvin, 523 Fed.Appx. 58, 59 (2d Cir. 2013)(citations omitted); Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999)(“We will not set the Commissioner's decision aside if it is supported by substantial evidence, even if we would have decided the factual inquiry differently.”).

         III. SSA LEGAL STANDARD

         Under the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits.

         To be considered disabled under the Act and therefore entitled to benefits, Mr. Suarez must demonstrate that he is unable to work after a date specified “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.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A). Such impairment or impairments must be “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. §423(d)(2)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(c) (requiring that the impairment “significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities” to be considered “severe”).

         There is a familiar five-step analysis used to determine if person is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). Under this process, the ALJ must sequentially determine: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals a listed impairment; (4) whether the claimant is able to do his or her past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is able to do any other work, considering his or her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4)(i-v);20 C.F.R. §416.920(a)(4)(i-v).

         Between steps three and four, the ALJ must also assess a claimant's RFC. RFC is defined as “that which an individual is still able to do despite the limitations caused by his or her impairment(s).” Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3d Cir. 2000) (citations omitted); 20 C.F.R. §404.1545 (a)(1) (“Your residual functional capacity is the most you can still do despite your limitations. We will assess your residual functional capacity based on all the relevant evidence in your case record.”); see also 20 C.F.R. §416.945 (a)(1). In making this assessment, the ALJ considers all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments, including any non-severe impairments identified by the ALJ at step two of his or her analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1545(a)(2), 416.945(a)(2).

         The disability determination involves shifting burdens of proof. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show at step five that jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). The ultimate burden of proving disability under the Act lies with the claimant. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a).

         IV. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Following the above-described five step evaluation process, ALJ Toland concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. [Tr. 83-95]. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date of March 1, 2012. [Tr. 85].

         At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had lumbrosacral spondylosis without myelopathy, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, mild left peroneal neuropathy of the fibular head, lumbar radiculopathy, and mild diffuse coronary disease affecting the right coronary artery with mild to moderate ventricular hypertrophy, all severe impairments under the Act and regulations. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [Tr. 87]. The ALJ specifically considered Listings 1.04 (disorders of the spine), 4.04C (coronary artery disease), and 11.14 (peripheral neuropathy)[Tr. 87-88].

         Before moving on to step four, the ALJ found plaintiff had the RFC

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), except he can stand/walk up to six hours per day but no more than one hour at a time and then would need to sit/shift positions for five minutes per hour while remaining on task. He can occasionally stoop, and he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. He cannot climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds. He must avoid concentrated exposure to dust, fumes, ...

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