United States District Court, D. New Jersey
McNULTY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Danielle Keveanos brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g) to review a final decision of the Commissioner
of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her
claims to Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB")
under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.
raises two principal issues in this appeal.
Keveanos contends that the ALJ failed to properly consider
the medical evidence. In particular, she argues, the ALJ
omitted certain medical testing and treatment notes from his
decision, and improperly weighed the opinions of her treating
physician and the state agency doctor.
Keveanos argues tfiat the ALJ incorrectly accessed her
residual functional capacity ("RFC"). In
particular, she argues, the ALJ erroneously discounted her
subjective complaints of pain and her treating
physician's determination that could sit for less than
following reasons, the decision of the ALJ is affirmed.
seeks to reverse the ALJ's Finding that she did not meet
the Social Security Act's definition of
"disabled" from May 7, 2013, the alleged onset
date, through January 25, 2017, the date of the ALJ's
decision. (R. 25-32).
20, 2014, Keveanos applied for DIB under Title II, alleging
that she was disabled as of May 7, 2013, as a result of
chronic back pain; degenerative disc, joint, and facet
disease; torn discs; and hypothyroidism. (R. 55-56, 133). Her
application was initially denied on September 18, 2014 (R.
63), and upon reconsideration on November 3, 2014. (R. 64).
November 28, 2016, Keveanos appeared before the ALJ with an
attorney and testified. (R. 25). Mary D. Anderson, a vocation
expert ("VE"), also testified. (Id.).
January 25, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that
Keveanos was not disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act. (R. 25-32). The ALJ concluded that
Keveanos's lumbar degenerative disc disease and
associated musculoskeletal disorders were severe, but not of
listing-level severity. (R. 27-29). Finally, the ALJ
concluded that Keveanos, given her RFC, was able to perform
work existing in the national economy. (R. 31-32).
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. §§ 4l6(i)(1), 423; 20 C.F.R. §404.131.
The Five-Step Process and This Court's Standard of
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: 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. §§
4O4.1520(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 numbers
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." Zirnsak 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); Podedworny 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
Podedworny, 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).
The ALJ's Decision
followed the five-step sequential process in determining that
Keveanos did not meet the Social Security Act's
definition of disabled from May 7, 2013, the alleged onset
date, through January 25, 2017, the date of the ALJ's
decision. (R. 25-32). The ALJ's findings may be
summarized as follows:
Step 1: At step one, the ALJ determined that
Keveanos had not engaged in substantial gainful activity in
the relevant period. (R. 27).
Step 2: At step two, the ALJ determined that
Keveanos had the following severe impairments: degenerative
disc disease, including mild narrowing at ¶ 4-L5 and
L5-S1; shallow lumbar levoscoliosis and mild loss of disc
space at ¶ 2-L3; broad disc bulging at ¶ 3-L4 and
L4-L5 and central dorsal annular abutment of die thecal sac;
mild degenerative disc disease in the lower thoracic spine
and lumbar spine at ¶ 2-L4 with small osteophytes;
post-status T9 laminectomy; and lumbar facet arthropathy. The
ALJ furtfier determined that Keveanos's hypothyroidism
was being treated successfully, and thus, was not severe. (R.
Step 3: At step three, die ALJ determined
that Keveanos did not have an impairment, or combination of
impairments, that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of die listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, subpt.
P., app. 1. (R. 27, 29 (citing Listing 1.04)). Listing 1.04
1.04 Disorders of die spine (e.g., herniated nucleus
pulposus, spinal arachnoiditis, spinal stenosis,
osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, facet artiiritis,
vertebral fracture), resulting in compromise of a nerve root
(including die cauda equina) or die spinal cord. With:
A. Evidence of nerve root compression characterized by
neuro-anatomic distribution of pain, limitation of motion of
the spine, motor loss (atrophy witii associated muscle
weakness or muscle weakness) accompanied by sensory or reflex
loss and, if there is involvement of the lower back, positive
straight-leg raising test (sitting and supine);
20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 §
1.04. In addressing this listing, the ALJ noted
that Keveanos lacked the attendant sensory and reflex loss.
(R. 27, 29).
4: At step four, the ALJ concluded that Keveanos had
the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform
sedentary work, with the following limitations and provisos:
[Keveanos can] occasionally push, pull, lift or carry 10
pounds, and frequently push, pull, lift or carry less than 10
pounds; can sit for six hours but must alternate to standing
for 10 minutes after every 20 minutes of sitting; can stand
for two hours but must alternate to sitting for 20 minutes
after every 10 minutes of standing; can walk for up to two
hours; can occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes
or scaffolds; can frequently balance, crawl and kneel; can
occasionally stoop and crouch; and can have occasional
exposure to vibration, unprotected heights, moving mechanical
parts and humidity and wetness.
(R. 29). The ALJ also determined that Keveanos was unable to
perform her past work, including the jobs of nurse and
administrative assistant. (R. 30).
5: At step five, the ALJ considered Keveano's
age on the alleged disability onset date (40), education (at
least a high school education),  and work experience in
conjunction with the Medical-Vocational Guidelines. (R. 31).
Relying on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ identified
several representative jobs Keveanos could perform despite
her limitations: (1) document preparer (Director of
Occupational Titles ("DOT) #249.587-018); (2)
address clerk (DOT #209.587-010); and (3) election clerk (DOT
# 205.367-030). (R. ...