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Guzman v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 12, 2018

ELIZABETH GUZMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          JAMES LANGTON LANGTON & ALTER, ESQS. 1600 ST. GEORGES AVENUE PO BOX 1798 RAHWAY, N.J. 07065 ON BEHALF OF PLAINTIFF

          QUINN E.N. DOGGETT SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION OFFICE OF THE GENERAL COUNSEL 300 SPRING GARDEN STREET - SIXTH FLOOR PHILADELPHIA, PA 19123 ON BEHALF OF DEFENDANT

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This matter comes before the Court pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), regarding Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”)[1] under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. The issue before the Court is whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in finding that there was “substantial evidence” that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time between June 17, 2009 and April 16, 2013. For the reasons stated below, this Court will affirm that decision.

         I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff, Elizabeth Guzman, claims that she is entitled to SSI due to cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy, diabetes mellitus, carpal tunnel syndrome, asthma, depression, and anxiety. Plaintiff had previously filed for SSI claiming a disability onset date on June 17, 2009.[2] The Commissioner denied that claim on August 4, 2011, a decision the Appeals Council upheld on February 21, 2013. Plaintiff appealed to the District Court on May 2, 2013. The court issued its decision on June 30, 2015 reversing and remanding the matter for further proceedings.

         After the Appeals Council upheld the denial of her SSI claim for the alleged onset of disability of June 17, 2009, but before she appealed the decision to the District Court, Plaintiff filed a second application for SSI on April 17, 2013 alleging that date as her onset of disability. While her appeal before the District Court was pending, the Commissioner granted her second SSI disability claim on November 10, 2014.

         Because of the approval of her second SSI claim for disability beginning on April 17, 2013, the issue before the ALJ on remand from the District Court for Plaintiff's first claim became whether Plaintiff was disabled from June 17, 2009 through April 16, 2013. A hearing was held on May 26, 2016, and the ALJ issued his decision on May 10, 2017 denying Plaintiff's claim for disability between June 17, 2009 and April 16, 2013. The ALJ's decision became final on July 10, 2017. Plaintiff brings this civil action for review of the Commissioner's decision.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Congress provided for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny a complainant's application for social security benefits. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995). A reviewing court must uphold the Commissioner's factual decisions where they are supported by “substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001); Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000); Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992). Substantial evidence means more than “a mere scintilla.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. V. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. The inquiry is not whether the reviewing court would have made the same determination, but whether the Commissioner's conclusion was reasonable. See Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988).

         A reviewing court has a duty to review the evidence in its totality. See Daring v. Heckler, 727 F.2d 64, 70 (3d Cir. 1984). “[A] court must ‘take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.'” Schonewolf v. Callahan, 972 F.Supp. 277, 284 (D.N.J. 1997) (quoting Willbanks v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 847 F.2d 301, 303 (6th Cir. 1988) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. V. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)).

         The Commissioner “must adequately explain in the record his reasons for rejecting or discrediting competent evidence.” Ogden v. Bowen, 677 F.Supp. 273, 278 (M.D. Pa. 1987) (citing Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581 (3d Cir. 1986)). The Third Circuit has held that an “ALJ must review all pertinent medical evidence and explain his conciliations and rejections.” Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 122 (3d Cir. 2000). Similarly, an ALJ must also consider and weigh all of the non-medical evidence before him. Id. (citing Van Horn v. Schweiker, 717 F.2d 871, 873 (3d Cir. 1983)); Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 707 (3d Cir. 1981).

         The Third Circuit has held that access to the Commissioner's reasoning is indeed essential to a meaningful court review:

Unless the [Commissioner] has analyzed all evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously probative exhibits, to say that his decision is supported by substantial evidence approaches an abdication of the court's duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached are rational.

Gober v. Matthews, 574 F.2d 772, 776 (3d Cir. 1978).

         Although an ALJ, as the fact finder, must consider and evaluate the medical evidence presented, Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 42, “[t]here is no requirement that the ALJ discuss in its opinion every tidbit of evidence included in the record, ” Hur v. Barnhart, 94 Fed.Appx. 130, 133 (3d Cir. 2004). In terms of judicial review, a district court is not “empowered to weigh the evidence or substitute its conclusions for those of the fact-finder.” Williams, 970 F.2d at 1182. However, apart from the substantial evidence inquiry, a reviewing court is entitled to satisfy itself that the Commissioner arrived at his decision by application of the proper legal standards. Sykes, 228 F.3d at 262; Friedberg v. Schweiker, 721 F.2d 445, 447 (3d Cir. 1983); Curtin v. Harris, 508 F.Supp. 791, 793 (D.N.J. 1981).

         B. Standard for SSI

         The Social Security Act defines “disability” for purposes of an entitlement to a period of disability and disability insurance benefits as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death, or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).

         Under this definition, a Plaintiff qualifies as disabled only if his physical or mental impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to perform his past relevant work, but cannot, given his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other type of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B) (emphasis added).

         The Commissioner has promulgated regulations[3] for determining disability that require application of a five-step sequential analysis. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. This five-step process is summarized as follows:

1. If the claimant currently is engaged in substantial gainful employment, he will be found ...

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