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Capanna v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

January 23, 2019

DEBRA CAPANNA, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION

          RENÉE MARIE BUMB, U.S.D.J.

         This matter comes before the Court upon an appeal by Plaintiff Debra Capanna from a denial of social security disability benefits on November 15, 2013. The denial of benefits was upheld by the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on September 21, 2016. [Record of Proceedings, “R.P.”, p. 15]. Because the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner. [Id.]. Plaintiff commenced this civil action seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the decision of the ALJ.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When reviewing a final decision of an ALJ with regard to disability benefits, a court must uphold the ALJ's factual decisions if they are supported by “substantial evidence.” Knepp v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 78, 83 (3d Cir. 2000); 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). “Substantial evidence” means “‘more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Cons. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999).

         In addition to the “substantial evidence” inquiry, the court must also determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. See Friedberg v. Schweiker, 721 F.2d 445, 447 (3d Cir. 1983); Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000). The Court's review of legal issues is plenary. Sykes, 228 F.3d at 262 (citing Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999)).

         The Social Security Act defines “disability” 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act further states,

[A]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind 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).

         The Commissioner has promulgated a five-step, sequential analysis for evaluating a claimant's disability, as outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). In Plummer, 186 F.3d at 428, the Third Circuit described the Commissioner's inquiry at each step of this analysis:

In step one, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 1520(a). If a claimant is found to be engaged in substantial activity, the disability claim will be denied. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987).
In step two, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant fails to show that [his] impairments are “severe, ” she is ineligible for disability benefits.
In step three, the Commissioner compares the medical evidence of the claimant's impairment to a list of impairments presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If a claimant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its equivalent, the analysis proceeds to steps four and five.
Step four requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating an inability to return to her past relevant work. Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). If the claimant is unable to resume her former occupation, the evaluation moves to the final step.
At this [fifth] stage, the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, who must demonstrate the claimant is capable of performing other available work in order to deny a claim of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). The ALJ must show there are other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy which the claimant can perform, consistent with her medical impairments, age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity. The ALJ must analyze the cumulative effect of all the claimant's impairments in determining whether she is capable of performing work and is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523. The ALJ will often seek the assistance of a vocational expert at this fifth step. See Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 218 (3d Cir. 1984).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The Court recites only the facts that are necessary to its determination on appeal, which is narrow.

         Plaintiff was born on December 21, 1965, and was 39 years old at the alleged onset date. [R.P., p. 30]. She applied for Social Security Disability Benefits on July 27, 2013, alleging an onset of disability of beginning November 1, 2005. [R.P., p. 15]. Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2009. [Id.]. Plaintiff alleged disability due to physical impairments including rheumatoid arthritis and degenerative disc disease, and mental conditions including schizoaffective disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression. [Plaintiff's Brief, “Pl.'s Br.”, p. 2].

         A disability hearing was held on August 16, 2016. The ALJ heard testimony from the Plaintiff. A Vocational Expert was also present, but did not testify. The ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act through the last date insured: December 31, 2009. [R.P., p. 21].

         A. Plaintiff's Relevant Medical History

         In August 2006, Plaintiff was treated at Kennedy Hospital for depression/anxiety and suicidal thoughts. At that time, Plaintiff did not seek voluntary hospitalization and was released from the hospital the same day. [Defendant's Opposition Brief “Def.'s Opp'n Br.”, p. 3]. Plaintiff began treatment with Dr. Deerfield during that month and treatment consisted of medication and monthly office visits. Dr. Deerfield's notes indicated lapses in treatment spanning three to four months, to more than a year and a half. [Id.]. Plaintiff was diagnosed with Bipolar I and ...


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