United States District Court, D. New Jersey
MCNULTY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
McIntyre brings this action pursuant to 45 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) to review a final decision
of the Commissioner of Social Security
("Commissioner") her claims to Disability Insurance
Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34, and Supplemental
Security Income ("SSI"), 42 U.S.C. § 1381. For
the reasons set forth below, the thorough and conscientious
decision of Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ")
Jennifer Spector is affirmed.
McIntyre seeks to reverse a decision that she did not meet
the Social Security Act's definition of disability. Ms.
McIntyre originally applied for DIB and SSI on April 15 and
16, 2013. The claim was denied initially on July 26, 2013,
and upon reconsideration on October 25, 2013. (R. 13).
hearing was held before an ALJ on June 10, 2015. (Transcript
at R. 55-127). The claimant, who was represented by counsel,
testified; the AW also took testimony from a vocational
expert ("VE"). On July 30, 2015, the ALJ rendered a
decision denying benefits. (R. 10-54) On January 31, 2017,
the Appeals Council denied Ms. McIntyre's request for
review of the ALJ's decision, rendering it the final
decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1)
McIntyre appealed to this Court, asserting that the ALJ erred
in finding that she was not disabled from an onset date of
April 22, 2002, through the date of the ALJ's decision.
The case was transferred, most recently to a Magistrate Judge
on September 28, 2018. It was informally transferred to me
for decision on November 2, 2018, and formally transferred
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 Illig 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 die 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 die criteria of any impairment found in die
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, die 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 die 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.
Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing 42
U.S.C. § 405(g)). Where facts are disputed, this Court
will "determine whether die 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 affirm, modify, or reverse the Commissioner's
decision, or it may remand the matter to the Commissioner for
a rehearing. Podedworny 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
die 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
Podedworny, 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 die ALJ's findings are not the
product of a complete review which "explicitly weigh[s]
all relevant, probative and available evidence" in the
record. Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 48 (3d Cir.
1994) (internal quotation marks omitted).
The ALJ's Decision
Jennifer Spector followed the five-step process in
determining that Ms. McIntyre was not disabled from January
1. 2011 through March 31, 2013 (the date last insured). Her
findings may be summarized as follows:
One: At step one, Judge Spector determined that Ms.
McIntyre had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since April 22, 2002, the amended onset date, in that her
small amounts of income did not meet the threshold. (R. 15).
Two: At step two, the ALJ determined that Ms.
McIntyre had the following severe impairments: right elbow
lateral epicondylitis, partial anterior cruciate ligament
("ACL") tear, arthritis of the thumb, herniated
nucleus pulposus of the lumbar spine and lumbar facet
syndrome, obesity, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety
disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress
disorder ("KPTSD"), and panic disorder
without agoraphobia. (R. 16). The ALJ found that the
following claimed impairments were not sever: sinusitis,
inguinal pain-folliculitis, plantar fasciitis, asthma, status
post anthrax poisoning, and cervical strain. As to these, the
ALJ thoroughly reviewed the medical evidence. (R. 16-19)
Three: At step three, the ALJ found that Ms.
McIntyre did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, subpt.
P., app. 1. As to musculoskeletal impairments, the ALJ made
particular reference to Listings 1.02 and 1.04. As to mental
impairments, the ALJ cited Listings 12.04 and
12.06. She exhaustively reviewed the evidence as
to each of the "paragraph B" and "paragraph
C" criteria. (R. 19-23).
Four: At step four, the ALJ appropriately made a
more detailed assessment of the evidence considered at steps
two and three for the purpose of assessing the claimant's
residual functional capacity ("RFC"):
... I find that the claimant has the residual functional
capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR
404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that she can walk, stand or
sit up to six hours a day but no more than two hours at a
time, and then would need to shift positions for 4 to 5
minutes while remaining on task, can never climb ladders,
ropes or scaffolds or work around unprotected heights or
dangerous moving machinery, can frequently climb ramps or
stairs, and can frequently operate foot controls, crouch or
crawl and also can understand, remember and carry out simple
instructions and can make only simple work related decisions.
ALJ, in considering the claimed symptoms, properly followed
the two-step process of determining whether they bore a
reasonable relation to an underlying impairment, and then
determining whether the claimed intensity of the symptoms is
credible in light of the evidence. Judge Spector found that Ms.
McIntyre's "medically determinable impairments could
reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms;
however, the claimant's statements concerning the
intensity, persistence and limiting effects of Uiese symptoms
are not entirely credible for the reasons explained in this
decision." (R. 25) These conclusions were accompanied by
a thorough review of the evidence. (R. 24-48)
Five: Finally, the ALJ determined that given Ms.
McIntyre's age, education, work experience, and RFC,
there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy that she could perform. (R. 48) Based on the
VE's testimony, she identified the following: office
helper (DOT code 239.567-010-83, 000 jobs in the national
economy; office cleaner (night) (DOT code 323.687-014)-878,
000 jobs in the national economy; and mail clerk (DOT code
209.687-026)-116, 000 jobs in the national economy.
Judge Spector concluded that Ms. McIntyre had not been under
a disability from April 22, 2002 through the date of her
decision. (R. 49).
Analysis of Ms. McIntyre's Appeal
McIntyre challenges the ALJ's decision on four grounds.
First, she says, the ALJ "gave insufficient weight to
testimony, both of McIntyre and her close friend, concerning
the numbness in her extremities . . . and her pain."
Second, "[t]he ALJ likewise failed to give sufficient
weight to McIntyre's subjective testimony concerning her
emotional conditions, including her feelings of depression
[and] her difficulty sleeping." (Pl. Br. 7, citing R.
75, 91-92). Third, the ALJ failed to "properly consider
the combined effect of the McIntyre's myriad ailments on
her ability to perform light work .... at step five of the
sequential analysis." (Pl Br. 7) Fourth, die ALJ failed
to assign controlling weight to the opinions of Ms.
McIntyre's treating professionals. (Pl Br. 9)
Grounds 1 & 2: Subjective complaints
first two grounds-pertaining to complaints of numbness, pain,
depression, and sleeplessness-are interrelated, and I discuss
complaints of pain and other symptoms must of course be
considered, but they are not necessarily controlling. As
noted above, the ALJ must-and here, did-make a determination
as to whether such complaints are credible in light of
established medically determinable impairments and in the
context of all the evidence of record. Seen. 6, supra,
Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 363 (3d Cir. 1999).
The ALJ must consider die extent to which the reported
symptoms can "reasonably be accepted as consistent with
die objective medical evidence and other evidence." 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), 416.929(a). If the
claimant's subjective complaints are unsupported by die
evidence, the ALJ may discount them. 20 C.F.R. §§
required is that die ALJ give the claimant's testimony
"serious consideration," state her reasons for
accepting or discounting it, and make "specific
findings." Rowan v. Barnhart, 67 Fed.Appx. 725,
729 (3d Cir. 2003). Where, as here, that has been done, die
ALJ's credibility determinations are entitled to
"great deference." Horodenski v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec, 215 Fed.Appx. 183, 188-89 (3d Cir. 2007)
(citing Atlantic Limousine, Inc. v. NLRB, 243 F.3d
711. 718 (3d Cir. 2001)). Indeed, it has been said that
"[t]he credibility determinations of an administrative
judge are virtually unreviewable on appeal." Hoyman
v. Colvin, 606 F.Appx. 678, 681 (3d Cir. 2015) (citing
Bieber v. Dep't of the Army, 287 F.3d 1358, 1364
(Fed. Cir. 2002)).
here found that although the medically determinable
impairments could reasonably be expected to produce such
symptoms, the claimant's complaints about the severity of
the symptoms were not wholly credible. (R. 25) That finding
was supported by substantial evidence. To be sure, there was
evidence of numbness, pain, depression, and sleeplessness. It
must be remembered, however, that to be fit for work, a
claimant need not be pain-free or symptom-free. See Welch
v. Heckler, 808 F.2d 264, 270 (3d Cir. 1986). To a great
degree, the ALJ accepted the evidence of underlying medical
conditions and associated symptoms. What was lacking was
corroboration of the claim that those symptoms were
finding, the ALJ carefully weighed the evidence, including
the subjective testimony. (R. 23-41). I will not repeat that
analysis here, but I will summarize enough of it to establish
that there was substantial evidence in support of the
ALJ's conclusions. Ms. McIntyre's treatment,
including medication and injections, relieved her pain
sufficiently enough for her to resume such activities as
bowling; surgery and additional injections ameliorated her
elbow pain; her thumb pain improved with medication and
injections; and arthritis and bursitis in Plaintiffs right
knee improved with medication, injections and physical
therapy, although she complained of pain while running (R.
39-41). Similarly, the ALJ explained that symptoms related to
mental impairments responded to some degree to medication and
therapy; at any rate clinical observations did not support a
conclusion that they were disabling. (R. 34-38). By April
2015, Ms. Schruntek opined that Plaintiff exhibited a
euthymic mood, an appropriate affect, and good memory and
attention (R. 38). State agency experts, Drs. Trachtenberg,
Golish, and Turhan, reviewed the medical records, and found
that the claimant could perform a range of light work with
some additional limitations (R. 133-34, 137-39, 164, 167-69).
medical evidence provided a sufficient basis for die
ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiffs testimony as to her
subjective symptoms was only partially credible.
Impairments in combination
short work of die third asserted ground-Le., that
the ALJ failed to consider the effect of Ms. McIntyre's
impairments in combination. To begin with, I have rarely seen
in an ALJ opinion such an exhaustive recital and discussion
of all the evidence of all claimed impairments. The ALJ,
moreover, was obviously well aware of the requirement that
she consider impairments in combination, as well as
individually. Her opinion states, for example, a finding that
the claimant "did not have an impairment or combination
of impairments that meets or medically equals” the
listings, and repeats that she considered them "singly
and in combination." (R. 19) From the context, it is
readily apparent that die RFC reflects limitations that draw
on multiple impairments. For example, it incorporates
physical limitations on standing or climbing, as well as
mental limitations on carrying out instructions or making
decisions. (R. 23) And that composite RFC is of course the
foundation of the step 5 finding as to particular jobs in the
national economy that the claimant could perform.
"[W]here the ALJ has indicated that die ...