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Downs v. Berryhill

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

May 30, 2019

LISA MARIE DOWNS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION

          RENÉE MARIE BUMB UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court upon an appeal by Plaintiff Lisa Marie Downs from a denial of social security disability benefits, seeking judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's application for social security disability. For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).

         I. Procedural History

         On September 11, 2015, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging disability beginning June 1, 2015. The claim was initially denied on November 10, 2015, and again upon reconsideration on February 5, 2016. Plaintiff filed a written request for hearing on February 25, 2016 and testified at an administrative hearing held before Administrative Law Judge Karen Shelton on July 18, 2017. At the hearing, Plaintiff was represented by her attorney, Lynette Siragusa. The ALJ also heard testimony from a vocational expert.

         On September 1, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim for benefits, based upon her finding that Plaintiff maintained, through the relevant time period, “the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she requires the opportunity to stand for 5 minutes after half an hour of sitting or sit for 5 minutes after half an hour of standing/walking while remaining on task . . . and can frequently handle and finger. [Record of Proceedings, “R.P.”, p. 19]. On January 3, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision final. Plaintiff now seeks Judicial Review by this Court pursuant 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. 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).

         III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The Court recites only the facts that are necessary to its determination on appeal, which is narrow. Plaintiff was born in 1967 and was 48 years old at the alleged onset date [R.P., p. 95]. The Plaintiff meets the insured status requirement of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2019. [R.P., p. 17].

         Plaintiff has past relevant work experience as a homecare attendant and a warehouse laborer. [R.P., p. 56-63]. However, Plaintiff claims that she is disabled and unable to work due ...


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