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Tillman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 9, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.

         Donald Tillman ("Claimant") seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and Local Civil Rule 9.1 of a final partially favorable decision by an administrative law judge ("ALJ") of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration that found him to be disabled after May 18, 2017, but not before. ECF No. [1]; R. at 11-24; R. at 25-41. In the Decision, the ALJ concluded that Claimant: (1) was not disabled during the time period of November 28, 2013 through May 17, 2017; and (2) was deemed to be disabled as of May 18, 2017 based upon the absence of his left eye and the lack of visual acuity that had developed in his right eye. R. at 16; see also R. at 20. Claimant now objects to the ALJ's conclusions that he was not deemed to be disabled prior to May 18, 2017. ECF No. [1].

         The Court has carefully considered the administrative record, as well as the submissions that have been made in support of and in opposition to the instant appeal. See ECF Nos. [10], [14], [15]. Claimant did not file a reply to the Commissioner's brief. See ECF No. [11] at 2. There was no oral argument. L. Civ. R. 78.1(b); L. Civ. R. 9.1. For the reasons set forth below, the Decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Court writes for the parties who are familiar with the facts and the procedural history of the case. The Court therefore specifically addresses in the discussion below only those facts relevant to the issues raised on appeal.


         On a social security appeal from an ALJ's final decision, the district court conducts plenary review of the legal issues. See Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). The factual findings of the ALJ are reviewed "only to 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 "less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla." Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). Thus, so long as there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings, district courts must affirm the decision, even if this Court "would have decided the factual inquiry differently." Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358 360 (3d Cir. 1999).


         A. The Five-Step Sequential Analysis

         Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(D), "provides for the payment of [disability insurance benefits] to persons who have contributed to the program and who suffer from a physical or mental disability." Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). In order to establish eligibility for benefits, a claimant has the burden of demonstrating that he or she 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 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a).

         The Social Security Administration uses a five-step sequential evaluation to determine if a claimant is entitled to benefits: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether this impairment meets or equals a listed impairment; (4) whether the impairment prevents claimant from performing her past-relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of her age, education, work experience, and RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920(e)-(f), Part 404 Subpart P, Appendix 1. Claimant bears the burden of proof for the first four steps, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner as to step five. 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) (citations omitted).

         B. The ALJ's Findings[1]

         The ALJ found that as of November 28, 2013, Claimant suffered from an impairment of "low vision right eye (with left eye enucleated)." R. at 17. However, the ALJ noted that prior to May 18, 2017, Claimant "did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in" the relevant regulations. R. at 18. The ALJ stated that although Claimant testified he "had to leave his last job because items were blurry and he had difficulty seeing them," vision exams prior to May 18, 2017, including an exam in March 2015 by Dr. Prinze Mack, did not demonstrate the required intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms prior to May 18, 2017 such that Claimant was still at that time capable of performing his past relevant work. The ALJ further determined that:

Beginning on May 18, 2017, the severity of [Claimant's] impairment has met the criteria of [the ...

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