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Mendez v. Astrue

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 21, 2019

MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


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

         This 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 DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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.[1]


         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. 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).


         The 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." Id.

         A. Evidence of a Non-Severe Mental Impairment Prior to October 7, 2003

         At Step 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.

         As 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 up).

         Here, 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 22.[2] 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 22.

         Plaintiff 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 ...

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