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Elakhrass v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 13, 2018

AZZA ELAKHRASS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,, Defendant.

          OPINION

          KEVIN MCNULTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Ms. Azza Elakhrass brings this action pursuant to 45 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her 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 [1]

         Ms. Elakhrass seeks to reverse a decision that she did not meet the Social Security Act's definition of disability. Ms. Elakhrass originally applied for DIB on March 1, 2013. The claim was denied initially on August 28, 2013, and upon reconsideration on December, 2, 2013. (R. 17).

         A hearing was held before an ALJ on March 28, 2013. Both the claimant and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (Transcript at R. 27-65). On August 12, 2015, the ALJ rendered a decision denying benefits. (R. 14-26) On December 7, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Elakhrass's request for review of the ALJ's decision, rendering it the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1)

         Ms. Elakhrass appealed to this Court, asserting that the ALJ erred in finding that she was not disabled from an onset date of January 1, 2011, through March 31, 2013, the date last insured. Although initially assigned to a Magistrate Judge, the case was informally transferred back to me for decision on November 2, 2018, and formally transferred on November 8, 2018. (DE 18).

         II. DISCUSSION

         To qualify for DIB (or Supplemental Security Income), 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 Rlig 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 and This Court's Standard of Review

         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.

         As to all legal issues, this Court conducts a plenary review. See Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). As to factual findings, this Court adheres to the ALJ's findings, as long as they are supported by substantial evidence. Jones v. Bamhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Where facts are disputed, this Court will "determine whether the administrative record contains substantial evidence supporting the findings." Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000). "Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Zirnsak v. Colvin, 777 F.3d 607, 610 (3d Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Substantial evidence "is more than a mere scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence." Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

[I]n evaluating whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings ... leniency should be shown in establishing the claimant's disability, and ... the Secretary's responsibility to rebut it should be strictly construed. Due regard for the beneficent purposes of the legislation requires that a more tolerant standard be used in this administrative proceeding than is applicable in a typical suit in a court of record where the adversary system prevails.

Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). When there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual findings, however, this Court must abide by them. See Jones, 364 F.3d at 503 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)); Zirnsak, 777 F.3d at 610-11 ("[W]e are mindful that we must not substitute our own judgment for that of the fact finder.").

         This Court may, under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), affirm, modify, or reverse the Commissioner's decision, or it may remand the matter to the Commissioner for a rehearing. Podedwomy v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984); Bordes v. Comm'r of Soc Sec, 235 Fed.Appx. 853, 865-66 (3d Cir. 2007).

         Remand is proper if the record is incomplete, or if there is a lack of substantial evidence to support a definitive finding on one or more steps of the five-step inquiry. See Podedwomy, 745 F.2d at 221-22. Remand is also proper if the ALJ's decision lacks adequate reasoning or support for its conclusions, or if it contains illogical or contradictory findings. See Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 220 F.3d 112, 119-20 (3d Cir. 2000). It is also proper to remand where the ALJ's findings are not the product of a complete review which "explicitly weigh[s] all relevant, probative and available evidence" in the record. Adomo v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 48 (3d Cir. 1994) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         B. The ...


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