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Golden v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 18, 2019

RICHARD GOLDEN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

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

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Richard Golden's ("Plaintiff) appeal of a decision by Defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or "Commissioner") ruling him not disabled. For the reasons set forth below, the appeal is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income on July 16, 2014, alleging he had been disabled since November 15, 2011. Admin. Rec. ("AR") at 13, ECF No. 11. Plaintiffs application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. On Plaintiffs request, Administrative Law Judge David Neumann ("ALJ") presided over a hearing held by video conference. Id. Plaintiff and his counsel appeared from Newark, New Jersey. Id.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 25, 2017 ("Decision"), finding Plaintiff was not disabled. AR at 24. Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Counsel. On June 11, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs appeal, making the ALJ's Decision the final, appealable decision of the Social Security Administration ("SSA"). Plaintiff then filed suit in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which confers the Court with jurisdiction.

         II. DISCUSSION

         The ALJ issued his Decision pursuant to the five-step sequential analysis applicable to determinations of benefits eligibility. Plaintiff challenges various aspects of the ALJ's determination. The sequential analysis, the ALJ's Decision, and each of Plaintiffs specific challenges is discussed below.

         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. The Administrative Law Judge's Decision

         The ALJ's Decision proceeds deliberately through the sequential analysis. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. AR at 15. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had six severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, asthma, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and depression with anxiety. Id. Despite those severe impairments, the ALJ determined at step three that Plaintiff did "not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in [the applicable regulation]." AR at 16. Because Plaintiff did not fit into one of the listed impairments, the ALJ had to determine whether Plaintiff had the RFC to perform past relevant work (step four) and if not, whether he was capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy (step five). Because Plaintiff did not have any past relevant work, once the ALJ calculated Plaintiffs RFA, he proceeded directly to step five, making use of a vocational expert to determine Plaintiffs ability to perform available jobs. AR at 23-24.

         C. Plaintiffs Appeal of the Decision and the Applicable Standard

         Plaintiff challenges three portions of the ALJ's Decision: (1) that Plaintiff was capable of light work; (2) the level of consideration given to Plaintiffs obesity; and (3) the relative weight afforded to the various doctor-witnesses. PI. Br. at 22-40, ECF No. 15. Further, because (Plaintiff asserts) he was not able to perform light work, Plaintiff argues (4) he should have been deemed disabled under the grids and, in any event, (5) there is "good cause" to remand the case. Id. at 40-42. The Government filed an opposition brief responding to each of Plaintiffs arguments, ECF No. 18, and Plaintiff filed a reply, ECF No. 19.

         In May 2019, after briefing was complete, the case was reassigned to Judge McNulty. ECF No. 20. In August, the case was reassigned to the undersigned. 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.

         1. ...


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