United States District Court, D. New Jersey
MCNULTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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
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).
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)
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).
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).
The Five-Step Process and This Court's Standard of
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: 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.
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
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
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).
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).