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Rodriguez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 1, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Carmen Rodriguez brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her claims to Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34. Rodriguez raises four principal issues in this appeal.

         First, Rodriguez argues that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") should have considered her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") disability benefits. The ALJ's decision was constrained to Rodriguez's DIB claim. Rodriguez admittedly received an initial denial of her SSI. Rodriguez has provided no evidence, nor is there any evidence in the Administrative Record, that Rodriguez appealed the initial denial, despite receiving the notice and instructions on how to appeal.

         Rodriguez next challenges the ALJ's failure to consult with a medical advisor, as required under certain circumstances under Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 83-20. Finally, Rodriguez argues that the ALJ improperly omitted her "non-severe" impairments when determining her Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") and constructed a faulty hypothetical to the vocational expert.

         For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

         I. Background[1]

         Rodriguez seeks to reverse the ALJ's finding that she did not meet the Social Security Act's definition of disabled from February 23, 2012, the alleged onset date, through the Date Last Insured ("DLI"), March 31, 2012. (R. 34).

         On July 12, 2013, Rodriguez applied for DIB, alleging a disabling condition that began on February 23, 2012. (R. 82-83, 194). Rodriguez attributed her disability to depression, high blood pressure, sleeping problems, pain, and arthritis in her back. (R. 219). Her application was initially denied on September 10, 2013 (R. 88-89), and upon reconsideration on March 19, 2014. (R. 90-99).

         On December 11, 2015, Rodriguez appeared before the ALJ with an attorney and testified. (R. 23). Christian Boardman, a vocational expert ("VE"), also testified. (Id.).

         On April 21, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Rodriguez is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. 23-34). The ALJ concluded that Rodriguez's affect disorder/depression was a severe impairment, but not of listing-level severity. (R. 25-27). The ALJ determined that Rodriguez, given her Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"), was able to perform past relevant work. (R. 27-34).

         II. Standard

         To qualify for DIB under Title II of the Act, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period." Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987); 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(1) (1982). Additionally, the claimant must show that she had disability insured status at the time she became disabled or that she attained this status at some point during her disability. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1), 423; 20 C.F.R. §404.131.

         A. The Five-Step Process and This Court's Standard of Review

         Under 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 the 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.
Step Three: Determine whether the impairment meets or equals the criteria of any impairment found in the 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, the 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 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 the claimant, considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, is capable of performing jobs that exist in significant No. 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.

         As to 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 the 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." Zimsak 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).

         When there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual findings, 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 fact finder.").

         This Court may, under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), affirm, modify, or reverse the Commissioner's decision, or it may remand the matter to the Commissioner for a rehearing. Bordes v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 235 Fed.Appx. 853, 865-66 (3d Cir. 2007); Podedwomy v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).

         Remand is proper if the 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 Podedwomy, 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).

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ followed the five-step process in determining that Rodriguez was not disabled from February 23, 2012, the alleged onset date, through the DLI, March 31, 2012. The ALJ's findings may be summarized as follows:

Step 1: At step one, the ALJ determined that Rodriguez had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date of February 23, 2012 through the DLI of March 31, 2012. (R. 25).
Step 2: At step two, the ALJ determined that Rodriguez had a severe impairment, affect disorder. (R. 25).
The ALJ also addressed Rodriguez's alleged back problems. Based on the medical records, the ALJ determined that there was insufficient medical evidence that Rodriguez suffered from a medically determinable impairment prior to the DLI. (R. 25). In March of 2011, Rodriguez had complained of generalized back pain, but an examination revealed no abnormal findings. (R. 25). Rodriguez did not report back pain again until March 5, 2013 and had indicated that she had had lower back pain for the previous two weeks — almost one year after the DLI. [Id.]. She further indicated that she had no prior history of back pain. (R. 26).
Regarding Rodriguez's diabetes, the ALJ determined that it was not severe. (R. 26). While Rodriguez had been diagnosed with diabetes mellitus prior to the DLI, and treatment records indicated "uncontrolled" blood sugars at times, "no limitations were associated." [Id.). Rodriguez was never hospitalized because of her diabetes, nor did she suffer from any organ damage, neuropathy, retinopathy, or any other clinical abnormalities. (Id.).
Finally, the ALJ addressed Rodriguez's hypertension, concluding that it also was not severe (R. 26). The medical evidence in the record established that Rodriguez's hypertension was "essentially controlled." (Id.). Rodriguez was not hospitalized, has not suffered form organ damage, and examination revealed normal findings. (Id.).
Step 3: At step three, the ALJ determined that Rodriguez did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, subpt. P., app. 1. (R. 26-27). In measuring the severity of an impairment, the ALJ referred to Section 12.04 ("Affective Disorders") of Appendix 1. (Id.).
To meet the severity requirement, a claimant's impairment must result in an extreme limitation of one, or a marked limitation of two, of the four Paragraph B areas under Section 12.04: daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence, or pace; and decompensation. (Id.).
The ALJ concluded that Rodriguez's impairment did not cause at least two "marked" limitations, or one "extreme" limitation, under the Paragraph B criteria. The ALJ determined that Rodriguez did not meet a marked limitation in any of the four areas evaluated under Section 12.04. (R. 26-27). Instead, all the areas were deemed "mild," except for "concentration, persistence, or pace." The ALJ determined ...

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