United States District Court, D. New Jersey
NANCY L. REED, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
RICHARD LOWELL On behalf of Plaintiff
M. GAUGHAN On behalf of Defendant
L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.
matter comes before the Court pursuant to Section 205(g) of
the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),
to review the final decision of the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration, denying Plaintiff's
application for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security
Act. 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. The issue before the Court
is whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
erred in finding that there was “substantial
evidence” that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time
since her alleged onset date of disability, which Plaintiff
initially claimed was June 28, 2004, but subsequently amended
to April 2, 2008. For the reasons stated below, this Court
will affirm that decision.
BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
August 17, 2011, Plaintiff, Nancy L. Reed, protectively filed
an application for DIB, initially alleging that she became
disabled on June 28, 2004, but she later amended her alleged
onset date to April 2, 2008. Plaintiff claims that she is no
longer able to work in her past employment as a legal
secretary because she suffers from various impairments,
including degenerative disc disease of the lumbosacral and
cervical spine, sleep apnea, peripheral neuropathy, and
initial claim was denied on December 12, 2011. After her
request for reconsideration was denied on April 11, 2012,
Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, which was held
on July 2, 2013. At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her
alleged onset date of disability to April 2, 2008. On August
14, 2013, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. Pursuant to
Plaintiff's Request for Review of Hearing Decision to the
Appeals Council on March 26, 2015, the Appeals Council
remanded the case to the ALJ for further review of the
Plaintiff's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”). A second hearing was held on July 9,
2015. On August 31, 2015, the ALJ issued a second unfavorable
decision. Plaintiff's Request for Review of Hearing
Decision was denied by the Appeals Council on October 5,
2016, making the ALJ's August 31, 2015 decision final.
Plaintiff brings this civil action for review of the
Standard of Review
42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Congress provided for judicial
review of the Commissioner's decision to deny a
complainant's application for social security benefits.
Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995).
A reviewing court must uphold the Commissioner's factual
decisions where they are supported by “substantial
evidence.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3);
Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir.
2001); Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir.
2000); Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d
Cir. 1992). Substantial evidence means 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)). It means “such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. The
inquiry is not whether the reviewing court would have made
the same determination, but whether the Commissioner's
conclusion was reasonable. See Brown v. Bowen, 845
F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988).
reviewing court has a duty to review the evidence in its
totality. See Daring v. Heckler, 727 F.2d 64, 70 (3d
Cir. 1984). “[A] court must ‘take into account
whatever in the record fairly detracts from its
weight.'” Schonewolf v. Callahan, 972
F.Supp. 277, 284 (D.N.J. 1997) (quoting Willbanks v.
Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 847 F.2d 301,
303 (6th Cir. 1988) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. V.
NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)).
Commissioner “must adequately explain in the record his
reasons for rejecting or discrediting competent
evidence.” Ogden v. Bowen, 677 F.Supp. 273,
278 (M.D. Pa. 1987) (citing Brewster v. Heckler, 786
F.2d 581 (3d Cir. 1986)). The Third Circuit has held that an
“ALJ must review all pertinent medical evidence and
explain his conciliations and rejections.” Burnett
v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 122 (3d
Cir. 2000). Similarly, an ALJ must also consider and weigh
all of the non-medical evidence before him.
Id.(citing Van Horn v. Schweiker, 717 F.2d
871, 873 (3d Cir.1983)); Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d
700, 707 (3d Cir. 1981).
Third Circuit has held that access to the Commissioner's
reasoning is indeed essential to a meaningful court review:
Unless the [Commissioner] has analyzed all evidence and has
sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously
probative exhibits, to say that his decision is supported by
substantial evidence approaches an abdication of the
court's duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to
determine whether the conclusions reached are rational.
Gober v. Matthews, 574 F.2d 772, 776 (3d Cir. 1978).
Although an ALJ, as the fact finder, must consider and
evaluate the medical evidence presented, Fargnoli,
247 F.3d at 42, “[t]here is no requirement that the ALJ
discuss in its opinion every tidbit of evidence included in
the record, ” Hur v. Barnhart, 94 Fed.Appx.
130, 133 (3d Cir. 2004). In terms of judicial review, a
district court is not “empowered to weigh the evidence
or substitute its conclusions for those of the
fact-finder.” Williams, 970 F.2d at 1182.
However, apart from the substantial evidence inquiry, a
reviewing court is entitled to satisfy itself that the
Commissioner arrived at his decision by application of the
proper legal standards. Sykes, 228 F.3d at 262;
Friedberg v. Schweiker, 721 F.2d 445, 447 (3d Cir.
1983); Curtin v. Harris, 508 F.Supp. 791, 793
Standard for Disability Insurance Benefits
Social Security Act defines “disability” for
purposes of an entitlement to a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits 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 12
months. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Under
this definition, a Plaintiff qualifies as disabled only if
his physical or mental impairments are of such severity that
he is not only unable to perform his past relevant work, but
cannot, given his age, education, and work experience, engage
in any other type 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)
Commissioner has promulgated regulations for determining
disability that require application of a five-step sequential
analysis. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. This
five-step process is summarized as follows:
1. If the claimant currently is engaged in substantial
gainful employment, he will be found “not
2. If the claimant does not suffer from a “severe
impairment, ” he will be found “not
3. If the severe impairment meets or equals a listed
impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1
and has lasted or is expected to last for a
continuous period of at least twelve months, the claimant
will be found “disabled.”
4. If the claimant can still perform work he has done in the
past (“past relevant work”) despite the severe
impairment, he will be found “not disabled.”
5. Finally, the Commissioner will consider the claimant's
ability to perform work (“residual functional
capacity”), age, education, and past work experience to
determine whether or not he is capable of performing other
work which exists in the national economy. If he is
incapable, he will be found ...