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Ballan v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 26, 2018



          CLAIRE C. CECCIII, U.S.D.J.


         Before the Court is Roseanne Ballan's ("Plaintiff) appeal seeking review of a final determination by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Defendant") denying her application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act ("SSA"). This matter is decided without oral argument pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is vacated and the case is remanded for further administrative proceedings.


         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff, an adult female, was born on February 9, 1965. (Tr. at 32).[1] Plaintiff possesses a ninth grade education, (id. at 33), and has previously worked as a kitchen aide, (id. at 35). In June 2010, Plaintiff injured her right knee by hitting it against an object while at work. (Id. at 37). Within a few months of that injury, Plaintiff began experiencing significant pain in her left foot and ankle. (Id. at 38). Plaintiffs ankle symptoms are believed to be a result of overcompensation following the injury to her opposite knee. (Id. at 244). Plaintiff testified that her pain from the injury has prevented her from working. (Id. at 37). Additionally, Plaintiff suffers from obesity. (Id. at 338).

         B. Procedural Background

         On August 16, 2013, Plaintiff applied for disability benefits as a result of her ongoing knee and ankle pain. (Id. at 158-59). On October 17, 2013, Plaintiffs application was initially denied. (Id. at 100). On December 23, 2013, the application was once again denied on reconsideration. (Id. at 106). Plaintiff requested an ALJ hearing, which was conducted on July 24, 2015. (Id. at 28-83). On October 19, 2015, the ALJ issued her opinion concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the SSA. (Id. at 16-24). On November 18, 2015, Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council. (Id. at 200-204). The Appeals Council denied review on May 04, 2017. (Id. at 1). Plaintiff instituted this action seeking review of the ALJ decision on June 19, 2017.


         A. Standard of Review

         This Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). The Court is not "permitted to re-weigh the evidence or impose [its] own factual determinations," but must give deference to the administrative findings. Chandler v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec, 667 F.3d 356, 359 (3d Cir. 2011); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Nevertheless, the Court must "scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached are rational" and supported by substantial evidence. Gober v. Matthews, 574 F.2d 772, 776 (3d Cir. 1978) (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, and is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Chandler, 667 F.3d at 359 (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). If the factual record is adequately developed, substantial evidence "may be 'something less than the weight of the evidence, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'" Daniels v. Astrue, No. 08-1676, 2009 WL 1011587, at *2 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 15, 2009) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm 'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). In other words, under this deferential standard of review, the Court may not set aside the ALJ's decision merely because it would have come to a different conclusion. Cruz v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec, 244 Fed.Appx. 475, 479 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999)).

         B. Determining Disability

         In order to be eligible for benefits under the SSA, a plaintiff must show she is disabled by demonstrating an 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. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). Taking into account the plaintiffs age, education, and work experience, disability will be evaluated by the plaintiffs ability to engage in her previous work or any other form of substantial gainful activity existing in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). A person is disabled for SSA purposes only if 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).

         Decisions regarding disability will be made individually and will be "based on evidence adduced at a hearing." Sykes v. Apfel,228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Heckler v. Campbell,461 U.S. 458, 467 (1983)). Congress has established the type of evidence necessary to prove the existence of a disabling impairment by defining a physical or mental impairment as "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by ...

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