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Dinger v. Berryhill

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

June 11, 2019

SUSAN A. DINGER, 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 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.

         For the 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 Court's reasoning.

         I. Procedural History

         On June 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].

         On 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 (C).[1] 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.

         The ALJ 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.[2] Plaintiff filed this appeal on July 12, 2018. [Dkt. No. 1].

         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 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].

         Plaintiff's 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].

         A. Plaintiff's Testimony

         At the 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 ...


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