United States District Court, D. New Jersey
McNULTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Carlos Labrador brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 1383(c)(3) to review a final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner")
denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income
("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act,
42 U.S.C. § 1381. Labrador seeks to reverse the finding
of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") that he did
not meet the Social Security Act's definition of disabled
since October 24, 2014, the date Labrador filed his
issue presented is whether the ALJ's decision is
supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, Labrador
contends that the ALJ (1) failed to consider the combined
effect of his impairments; (2) did not conduct "a
full" residual functional capacity ("RFC")
assessment; and (3) improperly weighed the medical opinions
in the record.
reasons stated below, the decision of the ALJ is affirmed.
October 24, 2014, Labrador filed an application for SSI under
Title XVI of the Social Security Act asserting that his
disability, arthritis, began on October 25, 2013. (R.
156-62). His application was initially denied on December 17,
2014, and upon reconsideration on May 28, 2015. (R. 61-75).
April 25, 2017, Labrador, represented by an attorney,
appeared before the ALJ. (R. 18). The ALJ heard testimony
from Labrador and Margaret Heck, a vocational expert
("VE"). (R. 18, 36-60). After the hearing, Labrador
submitted additional evidence, which the ALJ considered
before rendering his decision. (R. 18).
7, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Labrador was
not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.
(R. 18-27). The ALJ determined that Labrador's
impairments, cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease,
right shoulder tendinopathy and labrum tear, and depression
were severe, but not of listing-level severity. (R. 20-23).
The ALJ concluded that Labrador, given his RFC, was able to
perform work existing in the national economy. (R. 23-27).
qualify for SSI, a claimant must meet income and resource
limitations, and show that "he is unable 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. § 1383c(a)(3)(A). A
person is deemed unable to engage in substantial gainful
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. For
purposes of the preceding sentence (with respect to any
individual), "work which exists in the national
economy" means work which exists in significant numbers
either in the region where such individual lives or in
several regions of the country.
42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
The Five-Step Process and This Court's Standard of
the authority of the Social Security Act, the Administration
has established a five-step evaluation process for
determining whether a claimant is disabled and 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
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 yes, the claimant is not disabled. If not,
move to step two.
Two: Determine if the claimant's alleged
impairment, or combination of impairments, is
"severe." Id. §§ 404.1520(c),
416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled. If the
claimant has a severe impairment, move to step three.
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).
Four: Determine whether, despite any severe
impairment, the claimant retains the Residual Functional
Capacity ("RFC") to perform past relevant work.
Id. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f), 416.920(e)-(f)- If
yes, the claimant is not disabled. If not, move to step five.
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. Bamhart,
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));
Zimsak, 777 F.3d at 610-11 f[W]e are mindful that we
must not substitute our own judgment for that of the fact
finder."). This 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. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221
(3d Cir. 1984); Bordes v. Comm'r of Soc Sec, 235
Fed.Appx. 853, 865-66 (3d Cir. 2007).
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 process in determining that Labrador
was not disabled. The ALJ's findings may be summarized as
1: At step one, the ALJ determined that Labrador had
not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 24,
2014, the application date. (R. 20).
2: At step two, the ALJ determined that Labrador had
the following severe impairments: cervical and lumbar
degenerative disc disease; right shoulder tendinopathy and
labrum tear; and depression. (R. 20).
3: At step three, the ALJ determined that Labrador
did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments,
that meet or medically equal the severity of one of the
listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, subpt. P., app. 1.
(R. 21-23). There was no accepted medical source in the
record that supported a finding that Labrador's
impairments met or medically equaled any physical or mental
impairment. (R. 21). "Although severe," the ALJ
determined that the impairments "independently or in
combination" did not meet the requirements set forth in
Listing 1.00 for musculoskeletal impairments or Listing 12.00
for mental impairments. (Id.).
musculoskeletal impairments under Listing 1.00, the ALJ noted
that Labrador was able to ambulate effectively and use his
upper and lower extremities for fine and gross motor
Listing 12.00 for mental disorders, the ALJ concluded that
Labrador's impairments did not cause at least two
"marked" limitations, or one "extreme"
limitation, under the Paragraph B criteria for mental
functioning. [Id.). To satisfy the Paragraph B
criteria, a claimant's mental disorder must result in an
extreme limitation of one, or a marked limitation of two, of
the four Paragraph B areas of mental functioning.
four areas evaluated for mental functioning, the ALJ found
that Labrador had no difficulty in two areas: (1)
understanding, remembering, or applying information; or (2)
adapting or managing himself. The ALJ further concluded that
the record supported only a mild difficulty with interacting
with others and a moderate difficulty with concentrating,
persisting, or maintaining pace. (Id.).
4: At step four, the ALJ determined that Labrador
had the RFC to perform light work. (R. 23). The ALJ found
that Labrador could "perform simple, routine, repetitive
work," "lift and carry 10 pounds frequently and 20
pounds occasionally, sit for six hours," and "stand
and/or walk six hours." (Id.). The ALJ also
concluded that Labrador was capable of "pushing and
pulling motions with his upper and lower extremities . . .
with only occasional pushing and pulling with the right upper
also determined that Labrador did not have past relevant
work, and that the record "lack[ed] earning at the
substantial gainful activity level within the last 15
years." (R. 26).
5: At step five, the ALJ considered Labrador's
age, education, work experience and RFC in conjunction with
the Medical-Vocational Guidelines. (R. 26). Relying on the
testimony of the VE, the ALJ identified several
representative jobs that Labrador could perform: (1) flagger
(Director of Occupational Titles ("DOT")
#372.667-022; (2) parking lot cashier (DOT #211.462-010); (3)
toll collector (DOT #211.462-038); (4) document preparer (DOT
#249.587-018); and (5) ticket checker (DOT #219.587-010). (R.
27). The ALJ also determined, based on expert's
testimony, that a significant number of these jobs were
available nationally. (Id.).
the ALJ determined that Labrador was not under a disability,
as defined in the Social Security Act, since October 24,
argues that the ALJ failed to consider "the evidence and
effects" of his "combined severe impairments at
Step 3." He challenges the RFC finding, essentially
arguing that the ALJ failed to account for his low back pain
and depression and his inability to engage in certain daily
activities. Finally, he argues that the ALJ gave improper
weight to the various medical opinions in the record.