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Santos v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 18, 2018

YANIRA AVILA SANTOS
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security

          OPINION

          JACOB P. HART, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Yanira Avila Santos brought this action under 42 USC §405(g) to obtain review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). She has filed a Request for Review to which the Commissioner has responded. As set forth below, I will remand this matter to the Commissioner for a full consideration of the evidence of record regarding Avila Santos’s limitations resulting from her mental impairments, and the taking of new evidence from a vocational expert using hypothetical questions that address in more detail her impairment in concentration.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Avila Santos was born on October 13, 1975. Record at 172. She completed high school and two years of college. Record at 225. In the past, she worked as a legal assistant and as a home health aide. Record at 39-40, 62. On October 3, 2013, Avila Santos filed an application for DIB. Record at 172. (Her application for SSI was filed later, on October 14, 2014; Record at 180). In her applications, Avila Santos alleged disability since July 27, 2013, as a result of depression, anxiety, nerve damage to her hands, and neck and back pain due to disc herniation. Record at 224.

         Avila Santos’s applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Record at 103, 109. On July 9, 2014, she requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Record at 112.

         A hearing took place in this case on March 22, 2016. Record at 33. On April 23, 2016, however, the ALJ denied benefits. Record at 11. The Appeals Council denied Avila Santos’s request for review on June 1, 2017, permitting the ALJ’s decision to stand as the final decision of the Commissioner. Record at 1.

         II. Legal Standards

         The role of this court on judicial review is to determine whether the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971); Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986); Newhouse v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 283, 285 (3d Cir. 1985). Substantial evidence is relevant evidence viewed objectively as adequate to support a decision. Richardson v. Perales, supra, at 401; Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775 (3d Cir. 1987); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403 (3d Cir. 1979). Moreover, apart from the substantial evidence inquiry, a reviewing court must also ensure that the ALJ applied the proper legal standards. Coria v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 245 (3d Cir. 1984).

         To prove disability, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some “medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any ‘substantial gainful activity’ for a statutory twelve-month period.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1). As explained in the following agency regulation, each case is evaluated by the Commissioner according to a five-step process:

(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled. (ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in §404.1590, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled. (iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s that meets or equals one of our listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled. (iv). At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled. (v). At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your age, education and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are disabled.

20 CFR §404.1520 (references to other regulations omitted).

         III. The ALJ’s Decision and Avila Santos’s Request for Review

         In his decision, the ALJ determined that Avila Santos suffered from the severe impairments of a back disorder, affective disorders, and obesity. Record at 16. He found that no impairment or combination of impairments met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Record at 17.

         The ALJ concluded that Avila Santos retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to engage in light work, except that she could lift and carry no more than 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; could perform only occasional postural maneuvers, except that she could never climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds; she could perform frequent balancing, fingering, and head turning; she could only occasionally raise her arms above her shoulders; and was limited to unskilled work with only occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public. Record at 18.

         In reliance upon the vocational expert who appeared at the hearing, the ALJ decided that Avila Santos could not return to her prior work, but that she could work as an addresser, document preparer, or final assembler. Record at 26. He concluded, therefore, that she was not disabled. Record at 26-7.

         In her Request for Review, Avila Santos argues that the ALJ wrongly rejected not only the evidence of her treating physicians, but of the consulting agency mental health expert. She also argues that he wrongly assessed her testimony. Finally, Avila Santos argues that the ALJ relied on vocational testimony in response to inadequate hypothetical questions which did not include all of her impairments.

         IV. Discussion

         A. The Medical Evidence

         1. Avila-Santos’s Part-time Work

         When Avila Santos applied for benefits in October, 2013, she was still working sixteen hours per week as a home health aide. Record at 41, 59. She stopped working after a June, 2014 neck surgery. Record at 59. She asserts that the ALJ unfairly rejected the opinions of all medical experts solely on the basis of her part-time work.

         Avila Santos is undoubtedly correct that the ability to do part-time work does not automatically result in a denial of benefits. As she has pointed out, a claimant can be denied benefits ...


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