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Davis v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 26, 2019

TYREE DAVIS, Plaintiff,


          KEVIN MCNULTY. U.S.D.J.

         The plaintiff, Tyree Davis, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his claims to Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.

         The decision appealed from was largely favorable to Davis. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that Davis was disabled and awarded benefits starting from a disability onset date of February 24, 2015. The ALJ found that Davis was not disabled, however, prior to that date. It is from that latter determination that Davis appeals.

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

         I. Background[1]

         On July 15, 2014, Mr. Davis applied for DIB and SSI, alleging a variety of conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from his military service in Iraq. He claimed an onset date of September 22, 2008. The claims were denied initially and on rehearing. On June 29, 2017, the ALJ held a video hearing, and heard testimony from the claimant and from a vocational expert (VE). Davis was represented by counsel at the hearing. (R. 13).

         On August 8, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision (R. 9-30), finding that Davis was not under a disability prior to February 24, 2015, but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled. The Appeals Council, which accepted additional evidence, affirmed the decision of the ALJ, rendering it the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-8)

         On December 12, 2018, Mr. Davis filed this action, seeking to overturn the unfavorable portion of the ALJ's decision. Initially assigned to Chief Judge Linares, it was reassigned to me upon Judge Linares's retirement. (DE 11)

         II. Standard

         To qualify for DIB or SSI, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period." Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987); 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(1) (1982). Additionally, the claimant must show that she had disability insured status at the time she became disabled or that she attained this status at some point during her disability. 42 U.S.C. §§ 4l6(i)(1), 423; 20 C.F.R. § 404.131.

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

          Under the authority of the Social Security Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is 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), 4l6.92O(b). 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 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. m 404.1520(d), 416.920(d).

         Step Four: Determine whether, despite any severe impairment, the claimant retains the RFC to perform past relevant work. Id. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f). 4l6.92O(e)-(f). 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. Barnhart, 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, 111 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, 111 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. Bordes v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 235 F.App'x 853, 865-66 (3d Cir. 2007); Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).

         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 ...

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