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Berthold v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 17, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Mr. James Berthold 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 his claims to Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The claimant, Mr. Berthold, seeks to reverse a finding that he did not meet the Social Security Act's definition of disability from May 13, 2013, the onset date, through September 30, 2014, the late last insured. (R. 26).[1]The claimant filed his original application on January 6, 2014. (R. 17) The claim was denied on August 26, 2014. (R. 17) The claimant received a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Ricardy Damille on April 29, 2016. (A copy of the Hearing Transcript ("Tr.") is at R. 33-58.) Mr. Berthold, who was represented by counsel, testified, as did a Vocational Expert ("VE"), Andrew Vaughn.

         On June 17, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision which found the claimant not disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act. (R. 14-32). Mr. Berthold, still represented by counsel, sought review from the Appeals Council, which denied review, rendering the ALJ's decision final. (R. 1-4). This district court action followed.


         To 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 Illig 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).

         A. The Five-Step Process

         Under the authority of the Social Security Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step evaluation process for determining whether 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:

         Step 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.

         Step 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 step three.

         Step Three:

         Determine whether the impairment meets or equals the criteria of any impairment found in the 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).

         Step 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.

         Step 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, they will be awarded.

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         ALJ Ricardy Damille followed the five-step process in determining that Mr. Berthold was not disabled in the relevant period. The ALJ's findings may be summarized as follows:

         Step One:

         At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Berthold had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from May 1, 2013, through September 30, 2014. (R. 19).

         Step Two:

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Mr. Berthold had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the back; cervical myelopathy; ...

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