United States District Court, D. New Jersey
MICHAEL A. MENDEZ, Plaintiff,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.
matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Michael A.
Mendez's ("Plaintiff) appeal of a decision by
Defendant Michael J. Astrue ("Defendant"), the
former commissioner of the Social Security Administration
("SSA"). Plaintiff seeks remand and reversal of an
SSA determination that he was not disabled between January
26, 2002 and October 7, 2003. PL Br., ECF No. 10
("Brief). For the reasons set forth below, the appeal is
alleges that since January 26, 2002, he has been totally
disabled and unable to work due to mental and physical
impairments. Brief at 3. Plaintiff originally filed for
disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income in May and June of 2002. Admin. Record at 18, 47-52,
ECF No. 18 ("AR"). His application was denied
initially and on reconsideration. AR at 47-58. Plaintiff then
requested a hearing, which took place in June 2004 before
Administrative Law Judge Katherine Edgell ("ALJ").
AR at 32. The ALJ determined Plaintiff was disabled as of
October 7, 2003, but not before that date. AR at 112.
Plaintiff appealed, and the SSA's Appeals Counsel issued
a Notice of Affirmation and Order remanding the case to the
ALJ for further consideration. AR at 43-46, 84. Pursuant to
the Appeals Counsel's order, the ALJ held another hearing
on April 18, 2006. AR at 18. Once again, she issued a
decision ("Decision") finding Plaintiff not
disabled prior to October 2003. AR at 24. Plaintiff appealed
again, but this time the Appeals Counsel denied his request
for review, making the ALJ's Decision the final,
appealable order. AR at 8-11.
filed suit in this Court on December 19, 2006. ECF No. 1. The
case was assigned to a now-retired district judge. By
consent, the Court remanded the matter to the SSA to locate
Plaintiffs claim file. ECF No. 7. Defendant submitted the
record in December 2008. In 2009, the parties submitted
briefing. See Pl. Br.; Def. Opp., ECF No. 12, Pl..
Reply, ECF No. 14. Other than a notice of appearance on
behalf of Defendant, the case sat dormant until 2019. On June
18, 2019, Chief Judge Freda L. Wolfson reassigned the case to
the undersigned. As the claim file could not be located, the
matter was once again remanded to the SSA to provide a
complete record. ECF No. 17. Defendant did so on August 2.
ECF No. 18.
THE FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL ANALYSIS
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. In the first step, the Commissioner determines
whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the onset date of the alleged disability.
Id. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If not,
the Commissioner moves to step two to 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, the Commissioner inquires in step three as to
whether the impairment meets or equals the criteria of any
impairment found in the Listing of Impairments. Id.
Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, Part A. If so, the claimant
is automatically eligible to receive benefits (and the
analysis ends); if not, the Commissioner moves on to step
four. Id. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). In
the fourth step, the Commissioner decides 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). The claimant bears the burden of proof at
each of these first four steps. At step five, the burden
shifts to the Social Security Administration to demonstrate
that the claimant is capable of performing other jobs that
exist in significant numbers in the national economy in light
of the claimant's age, education, work experience, and
RFC. Id. §§ 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).
overarching issue in this matter is whether the ALJ properly
determined Plaintiff was not disabled between January 26,
2002, and October 6, 2003. The Court has plenary review over
the ALJ's determination of legal issues. Chandler v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 667 F.3d 356, 359 (3d Cir. 2011)
(cleaned up). The standard of review for findings of fact, on
the other hand, is deferential. The standard "is whether
there is substantial evidence to support such findings."
42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) & 1383(c). Courts are not
permitted to re-weigh the evidence or impose their own
factual determinations. Chandler, 667 F.3d at 359
(cleaned up). Instead, "substantial evidence" only
requires "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."
Evidence of a Non-Severe Mental Impairment Prior to
October 7, 2003
Two, the ALJ found that "medical evidence establishe[d]
the existence of [severe] pulmonary and bilateral knee
impairments." AR at 21. "It d[id] not, however,
establish the existence of any other severe impairment."
Id. Plaintiff argues that conclusion is incorrect
because significant evidence demonstrated a
"severe" mental illness. Brief at 5-7.
noted above, at Step Two of the five-step sequential
analysis, the SSA determines if the claimant's alleged
impairment or combination of impairments is
"severe." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c),
416.920(c). "An impairment or combination of impairments
can be found 'not severe' only if the evidence
establishes a slight abnormality or a combination of slight
abnormalities which have no more than a minimal effect on an
individual's ability to work." Newell v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 347 F.3d 541, 546 (3d Cir.
2003). "Only those claimants with slight abnormalities
that do not significantly limit any 'basic work
activity' can be denied benefits at step two.
Id. "Basic work activities are abilities and
aptitudes necessary to do most jobs, including, for example,
walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling,
reaching, carrying or handling." Id. (cleaned
in finding no severe mental impairment prior to October 2003,
the ALJ relied primarily on an assessment by Plaintiffs
treating physician, Dr. C. Dicovskiy. In April 2003, Dr.
Dicovskiy assigned Plaintiff a Global Assessment of
Functioning ("GAF") score of 70, which indicates
"no more than mild symptoms and limitations." AR at
The ALJ also found significant the fact that Plaintiff did
not allege any form of mental disorder when initially
applying for benefits. AR at 21. While there was some
pre-application history of mental impairment, Plaintiff
subsequently performed substantial gainful activity until at
least 2002. Id. Thus, mental impairments could not
have prevented him from working during that time.
Id. Further, "there [was] no indications in the
record that mental factors were a consideration in
[Plaintiffs] stopping work," or that he sought or
obtained mental treatment through February 2003. Id.
at 21-22. And during Plaintiffs application process, he
specifically told SSA staff that he was not being, nor was he
seeking, treatment for depressive symptoms. Id. at
points to some contemporaneous evidence of mental impairment
and attempts to explain the impairments' lack of
inclusion in initial application papers. Br. at 5-10. While a
trier of fact could weigh the evidence differently, the Court
is bound by the ALJ's factual determinations so long as
there is substantial evidence for them. 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) & 1383(c); McCrea v. Comm'r
of Soc. Sec,370 F.3d 357, 360-61 (3d Cir. 2004)
("The Commissioner's denial at step two, like one
made at any other step in the sequential analysis, is to be
upheld if supported by substantial evidence on the record as
a whole."). As the ALJ found significant, Dr.
Dicovskiy's assignment of a 70 GAF score strongly
supports the conclusion that Plaintiffs mental impairments
did not limit his ability to do basic work activities before
October 2003. AR 21-22; Newell, 347 F.3d at 546
(providing examples of basic work activities). Other evidence
corroborates that determination, including gainful employment
until 2002, lack of assertions of mental illness in original
benefit applications, and lack of treatment or care.
See AR at 21-22. While ...