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Barik v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 21, 2019

FARIDA BARIK, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Farida Barik's ("Plaintiff) appeal of a decision by Defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant") ruling her not disabled. Plaintiffs brief makes clear that the issue presented for review is whether substantial evidence supports the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") "ruling that Plaintiff had the ability to communicate in English." Pl. Br. at 1, ECF No. 15. For the reasons set forth below, the appeal is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The facts relevant to this appeal are relatively narrow. Plaintiff filed for disability benefits on August 14, 2013, alleging an onset date of November 30, 2012. Admin. Rec. ("AR") at 154, ECF No. 11. After receiving an unfavorable decision on her initial application and request for reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR at 73-85, 96. The ALJ found that despite severe impairments, Plaintiff was not disabled. AR at 19-32. The Appeals Counsel found no reason to review the ALJ decision, making the ALJ's decision the final appealable order. AR at 1-7.

         In finding no disability, the ALJ ruled that Plaintiff was "able to communicate in English." AR at 27. Plaintiff argues that ruling was not supported by substantial evidence and instead, "[t]here is substantial evidence in the file that Plaintiff was unable to speak or understand English and prefers to communicate in Bengali." Pl. Br. at 5. Thus, Plaintiff argues, she was disabled by definition on her forty-fifth birthday under the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") medical-vocational guidelines. Id.


         A. Five-Step Sequential Analysis

         The SSA 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).

         B. Standard of Review

         The Court has plenary review of legal issues. See Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 667 F.3d 356, 359 (3d Cir. 2011) (cleaned up). Findings of fact, on the other hand, will be affirmed if "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.

         C. Substantial Evidence for Finding of English Ability

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's determination that she could communicate in English (without providing further explanation) was reversible error. Pl. Br. at 5 (citing AR at 27). Plaintiff points to various evidence of her inability to communicate in English, including: (1) a disability report, (2) the fact that Plaintiffs lawyers completed her application on her behalf, (3) the use of a Bengali interpreter at the ALJ's hearing, (4) the "Disability Determination Explanation" prepared at the initial application and reconsideration levels, and (5) a case analysis completed in 2014. Id. at 5-6.

         While the evidence cited by Plaintiff could support a finding that she does not speak English, the standard of review requires the Court to ask whether the ALJ's finding was supported by substantial evidence, not whether there is opposing substantial evidence. See Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc Sec, 497 Fed.Appx. 199, 201 (3d Cir. 2012) ("[W]e will uphold the ALJ's decision even if there is contrary evidence that would justify the opposite conclusion, as long as the 'substantial evidence' standard is satisfied.").

         Here, there is substantial evidence that Plaintiff was able to communicate in English. Most significantly, Plaintiff testified as such. At the hearing, the ALJ said: "And I can tell because you're answering some of my questions that you do understand and speak a little bit of English. Are you able to read and write English?" AR at 40. Plaintiff responded: "Yes, I do." AR at 41. Further, earlier in the hearing, despite the presence of a translator, when the ALJ told Plaintiff "the issue before me is whether you are disabled," Plaintiff herself responded "Yes, I am." AR at 38. Plaintiff responded to many more questions in English too. See AR at 41-43. While other evidence may support a contrary conclusion, there is undeniably "substantial evidence" that Plaintiff could communicate in English. See Chandler, 667 F.3d at 359 (requiring "relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a ...

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