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Labrador v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 26, 2019

CARLOS LABRADOR, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION

          KEVIN McNULTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff 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 application.

         The 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.

         For the reasons stated below, the decision of the ALJ is affirmed.

         I. Background[1]

         On 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).

         On 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).

         On June 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).

         II. Standard

         To 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 activity

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).

         A. The Five-Step Process and This Court's Standard of Review

         Under 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 as follows:

         Step 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.

         Step 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.

         Step 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).

         Step 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.

         Step 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.

         As to 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).

         When 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).

         Remand 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).

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ followed the five-step process in determining that Labrador was not disabled. The ALJ's findings may be summarized as follows:

         Step 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).

         Step 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).

         Step 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.).

         Regarding 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 activities. (Id.).

         Under 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.

         Of the 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.).

         Step 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 extremity." (Id.).

         The ALJ 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).

         Step 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.).

         Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Labrador was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since October 24, 2014. (Id.).

         III. Discussion

         Labrador 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.

         A. ALJ's ...


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