United States District Court, D. New Jersey
MCNULTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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.
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.
reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is
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).
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).
December 11, 2015, Rodriguez appeared before the ALJ with an
attorney and testified. (R. 23). Christian Boardman, a
vocational expert ("VE"), also testified.
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).
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.
Five-Step Process and This Court's Standard of Review
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.
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).
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
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).
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).
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.
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
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.
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 ...