United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage
SUSAN A. DINGER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
RENÉE MARIE BUMB UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.
matter comes before the Court upon an appeal by Plaintiff
Susan A. Dinger from a denial of social security disability
benefits on February 28, 2017, which was upheld by the
Appeals Council on December 12, 2017. [Record of Proceedings
“R.P.”, p. 19-22, 44-57]. Plaintiff is seeking
judicial review of the final determination of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for
social security disability benefits.
reasons set forth below, the Court will vacate the decision
of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) and
remand this case for proceedings consistent with the
23, 2014, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for
disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social
Security Act, alleging disability beginning August 10, 2010.
[R.P., p. 260]. Plaintiff's application was initially
denied on September 17, 2014 and again denied upon
reconsideration on January 8, 2015. [R.P., p. 155, 172-76].
Plaintiff then requested a hearing which took place on
October 20, 2016. [R.P., p. 177-178, 63-95]. During the
hearing held before Administrative Law Judge Denise M.
Martin, Plaintiff amended her disability onset to August 1,
2011. [R.P., p. 66-67].
February 28, 2017, the ALJ issued an order denying
Plaintiff's claim for social security disability
benefits. [R.P., p. 44-57]. Specifically, the ALJ found at
Step Three of the five-step sequential analysis that
Plaintiff 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. Part 404, Subpart
P, Appendix 1.” [R.P., p. 51-52]. The ALJ enumerated
listings 1.02, 1.04, 4.02, 12.04, and 12.06, and provided a
single analysis for 12.04 and 12.06, paragraphs (B) and
Id. The ALJ did not, however, provide analysis for
listings 1.02, 1.04, and 4.02, but stated that she
“considered [their] applicability.” Id.
also found that at Step Five of the five-step sequential
analysis that Plaintiff retained the Residual Functional
Capacity (“RFC”) to perform jobs in the national
economy. [R.P., p. 52]. The ALJ stated that:
[Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform “light”
work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b),
except for the following: She cannot climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds, and she can perform no more than occasional
climbing of ramps and stairs and occasional balancing,
stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. She would need
an unskilled, simple, routine, repetitive job with no
interaction with the public; only brief and superficial
interaction with supervisors and coworkers; and no fast-paced
or high production quotas.
Id. Plaintiff filed this appeal on July 12,
2018. [Dkt. No. 1].
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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)).
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).
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
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
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
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).
Court recites only the facts that are necessary to its
determination on appeal, which is narrow. Plaintiff was born
in 1967 and was 43 years old at the alleged onset date.
[R.P., p. 66, 68]. Plaintiff meets the insured status
requirement of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2013.
[R.P., p. 47].
relevant employment history includes periods as a cleaner,
customer service associate, server, bartender, and store
associate. [R.P., p. 281, 296]. Plaintiff claims that she is
disabled and unable to work due to a myriad of physical and
mental impairments, including but not limited to: spinal
disorder; bursitis; joint pain; back pain; thyroid disorder;
abnormal heartbeat; anxiety; panic disorder; agoraphobia;
insomnia; and depression. [R.P., p. 49-51].
administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified that she most
recently left employment as a bartender/waitress because the
“driving, the noise, [and] the people” induced
panic attacks and anxiety. [R.P., p. 72-73]. Plaintiff also
stated that she recently left a position at a school because
she was not “leaving [her] house or talking to anybody
on the phone” at ...