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May v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

May 31, 2019

NICHELLE VONDA MAY, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,

          SIRAGUSA LAW FIRM LLC By: Lynette Siragusa, Esq. Counsel for Plaintiff Nichelle Vonda May

          SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, OFFICE OF GENERAL COUNSEL By: Katie M. Gaughan, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Counsel for Commissioner of Social Security

          OPINION

          RENÉE MARIE BUMB, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court upon an appeal by Plaintiff Nichelle Vonda May (the “Plaintiff”) of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for social security disability benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will VACATE the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) and REMAND for proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On May 19, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). In her application, Plaintiff alleges disability, beginning November 9, 2014, based on severe major depressive disorder with psychotic features. Plaintiff also allegedly suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), anxiety, and has a history of substance abuse. Plaintiff's claim was initially denied on September 10, 2015, and again denied upon reconsideration on February 16, 2016. [Record of Proceedings (“R.P.”) at 13]. On August 23, 2017, Plaintiff testified at a formal hearing before Administrative Law Judge Lisa Hibner. At the hearing, Plaintiff was represented by her attorney, Lynette Siragusa.

         On October 26, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim for benefits, based on the ALJ's determination that “there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy which the claimant could perform.” [R.P. at 31]. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 16, 2018, rendering the ALJ's decision as final. [R.P. at 2-4]. Plaintiff now appeals the Commissioner's final determination for this Court's review.

         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 ...


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