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Mercado v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 7, 2018





         In this action, Plaintiff Alberto Mercado (hereinafter, "Plaintiff") seeks review of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (hereinafter, "Defendant" or "the Commissioner") denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("SSA"), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         On September 15, 2015, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Karen Shelton issued a 14-page opinion finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. The ALJ arrived at this decision after taking testimony from a vocational expert. She found that an individual with Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity ("RFC") could still perform a significant number of jobs existing in the national economy.

         Plaintiff does not dispute the ALJ's interpretation of the medical record, nor does he dispute the ALJ's residual functional capacity determination. Rather, Plaintiff argues in this appeal that even though the ALJ attributed great weight to the opinions of state agency physicians that Plaintiff was limited to "sedentary" work, the ALJ used the term "light" work in her RFC finding. Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ incorrectly applied the agency's rules when a claimant's RFC falls between two exertional levels. For the reasons explained below, the Court will affirm the ALJ's decision denying Plaintiff's application for Social Security benefits.


         To be eligible for disability insurance benefits, a claimant must have a "medically determinable physical or mental impairment" that prevents him from engaging in any "substantial gainful activity" for a continuous twelve-month period. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). A claimant lacks the ability to engage in any substantial gainful activity "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." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B); Plummer, 186 F.3d at 427-28.

         The Commissioner reviews disability claims in accordance with a five-step process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. In step one, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 1520(b). If the answer is yes, the disability claim will be denied. See 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," defined as an impairment "which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 1520(c). A claimant who cannot claim a "severe" impairment is ineligible for benefits. Plummer, 186 F.3d at 428.

         Step three requires the Commissioner to compare the medical evidence of the claimant's impairment to a list of impairments presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 1520(d). If a claimant suffers from a listed impairment or its equivalent, she is approved for disability benefits and the analysis stops. If she does not suffer from a listed impairment or its equivalent, the analysis proceeds to steps four and five to determine whether the she retains the ability to engage in substantial gainful activity. Plummer, 186 F.3d at 428.

         The Commissioner conducts a residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment at steps four and five. The RFC assessment considers all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments and determines the most the claimant can still do despite his limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)-(2). The RFC is expressed in terms of physical exertional levels of sedentary, light, medium, heavy, or very heavy work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.967 (2002). Based on the claimant's RFC, the Commissioner determines, at step four, whether the claimant can perform the physical exertion requirements of his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If he is unable to resume his former occupation, the Commissioner will then proceed to the final step and decide whether the claimant is capable of performing other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, taking into account her RFC and vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c).

         In the final step, relevant to this case, the ALJ relies on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines ("Guidelines" or "Grids") set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, which establish the types and number of jobs that exist in the national economy for claimants with certain exertional impairments. The Guidelines "consist of a matrix of four factors - physical ability, age, education, and work experience - and set forth rules that identify whether jobs requiring specific combinations of these factors exist in significant numbers in the national economy." Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 273 (3d Cir. 2000) .

         When a claimant's combination of factors correspond with the same combination of factors in the Grid, the Grid will direct a conclusion as to disability, which the ALJ must follow. Id.; see also Hall v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 218 Fed.Appx. 212, 216 (3d Cir. 2007) ("When the four factors in a claimant's case correspond exactly with the four factors set forth in the grids, the ALJ must reach the result the grids reach.") (emphasis in original). However, where a claimant's specific profile is not listed in the Grid, such as when the claimant has certain limitations to their exertional capacity and can perform something in between two exertional ranges of work, the Grid does not mandate a specific finding, and may only be used as a framework to guide the disability decision. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, § 200.00(d). In such cases, the ALJ must support his determination by relying on vocational testimony or similar evidence to decide whether a significant number of jobs exist for a particular claimant given his specific background and exertional limitations. See Sykes, 228 F.3d at 264; Hall, 218 Fed.Appx. at 217. If, after considering all the evidence, the answer is no, a finding of "disabled" is required. However, if the Commissioner determines that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy for a particular claimant, the Commissioner will find the claimant "not disabled." See Sykes, 228 F.3d at 273.


         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI benefits on July 2, 2012, asserting disability since December 1, 2011. (Tr. 235-48.) Having been born in May of 1964, (Tr. 53), Plaintiff was 47 years old when he allegedly became disabled, a "younger person" under the Commissioner's regulations, but became a person "closely approaching advanced age" by the date of the ALJ's decision, (Tr. 39, 119.) See 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1563(c), (d), 416.963(c), (d). He has a ninth-grade education, which the ALJ classified as "limited" (Tr. 38, 58.) Due to his impairments, Plaintiff cannot ...

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