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Katz v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 27, 2018

JEROME I. KATZ, Claimant,


          WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.

         Claimant Jerome I. Katz (“Claimant”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking review of a final determination by the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying his application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND


         Claimant is a sixty-eight-year-old male who was employed by Monmonth County Board of Social Services as a social worker from 1972 to 1982. R. at 519-20.[1] Though not his original assignment, at some point Claimant was reassigned to work primarily on cases involving child abuse. R. at 368. This reassignment caused Claimant anxiety, paranoia, and stress, and he had significant difficulties interacting with his coworkers. R. at 365-67. At the same time, Claimant also began to endure many personal challenges, including the loss of his home and breakdown of his marriage. R. at 364, 370-73. In 1982, Claimant took leave from his job as a social worker due to orthopedic injuries he sustained while on the job.

         Claimant eventually applied for a New Jersey state disability pension based on headaches and mood disorders, including depression and anxiety. R. at 361. Claimant underwent two psychological evaluations to determine his eligibility for the state pension. In a report dated March 3, 1986, Dr. Edward Dengrove, who first evaluated Claimant in 1984, concluded that Claimant suffered from “depressive reaction with features of anxiety to such a degree that it incapacitates him for social work” such that he was “totally and permanently disabled to engage in this occupation.” Id. at 641. Dr. Dengrove recommended further psychiatric treatment. Id. at 641. Claimant discontinued seeing Dr. Dengrove after several visits. Id. at 754.

         Claimant was subsequently evaluated by Dr. Gerald Ollins on May 20, 1986. Dr. Ollins similarly concluded that Claimant suffered from “major depression with anxiety features” and was “totally and permanently disabled to work for the Monmouth County Department of Social Services.” Id. at 655-56. Dr. Ollins also recommended further psychiatric treatment. Id. at 656.

         On June 7, 1986, Dr. David Eckstein, a physician for the state pension, determined that “Mr. Katz is suffering from a major depressive state with anxiety and paranoia. He cannot function as a social worker. The Medical Board considered him permanently and totally disabled.” R. at 765. Based on the findings of Drs. Dengrove, Ollins, and Eckstein, Claimant was granted a state disability pension in 1986. R. at 361.

         Claimant has not held any non-occasional employment since he began receiving his state disability pension. Based on this employment history, Claimant and the Commissioner agree that Claimant's date of last insured for purposes of his DIB claim is December 31, 1988.


         On April 12, 2012, Claimant applied for DIB based on his mental health disability under Section 12.04 (depressive, bipolar and related disorders) and 12.06 (anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders) of the Social Security Administration's Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.04, 12.06. In his application, Claimant cites a number of mental impairments with an onset date of September 29, 1982. After denial of his claim, Claimant, represented by counsel, appeared for hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on September 29, 2015. R. at 248. On November 4, 2015, the ALJ issued a Notice of Decision denying Claimant's application for DIB, finding that Claimant was “not disabled” from his alleged onset date of September 29, 1982 to his date of last insured of December 31, 1988 (“Relevant Period”). R. at 245.

         On January 7, 2016, Claimant appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council. R. at 206, 333. Subsequently, counsel for Claimant filed several additional documents with the Appeals Council to supplement and clarify the legal and factual basis for the appeal. See, e.g., R. at 14-18, 31-48, 51-60, 66, 766-75. The Appeals Council found that these documents were not “new and material” and thus would not render the ALJ's “decision [] contrary to the weight of all evidence now in the record.” R. at 1-2. The Appeals Counsel added these filings to the administrative record and denied review of the ALJ's decision. R. at 1-5. Claimant then filed this appeal.[2]


         Claimant challenges the ALJ's determination that he was “not disabled” during the Relevant Period. The arguments set forth by Claimant's counsel in a 90-page brief and 68-page reply generally challenge the ALJ's findings regarding Claimant's limitations based on her failure to properly weigh of the medical reports, testimony, and documentary evidence. See ECF Nos. [17], [17-1], and [25].[3] The Court construes these arguments as challenges to the ALJ's findings at Steps 3, 4, and 5 of the Commissioner's five-step sequential evaluation under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920(e)-(f), Part 404 Subpart P, Appendix 1. Claimant additionally argues that ALJ appeared “rushed” at the hearing and failed to fairly and fully develop the record. ECF No. [17-1] at 79-87.

         In response, the Commissioner argues that Claimant did not meet the Administration's definition of “disabled” during the Relevant Period (ECF No. [22] at 16); that Claimant did not meet his burden to establish that he had marked limitations in daily activities, concentration, persistence or pace, or repeated episodes of decompensation (id. at 21-26); that the ALJ's findings regarding Claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) are supported by substantial evidence (id. at 27-36); and that the ALJ conducted a full and fair hearing without evidence of bias (id. at 36-39).


         On a social security appeal from an ALJ's final decision, the district court conducts plenary review of the legal issues. See Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). The factual findings of the ALJ are reviewed “only to 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 “less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla.” Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). Thus, so long as there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's ...

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