United States District Court, D. New Jersey
JAMES M. BARNETT, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
Madeline Cox Arleo United States District Judge.
MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff James M.
Barnett's (“Plaintiff”) request for review,
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383(c)(3) and 405(g) of
the Administrative Law Judge's (the “ALJ”)
decision regarding Plaintiff's application for Disability
Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). For the reasons set
forth in this Opinion, the Commissioner of Social
Security's (the “Commissioner”) decision is
reversed and this action is remanded to the Commissioner.
Standard of Review and Applicable Law
Standard of Review
Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's
decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The
Commissioner's application of legal precepts is subject
to plenary review, Markle v. Barnhart, 324 F.3d 182,
187 (3d Cir. 2003), but her factual findings must be affirmed
if they are supported by substantial evidence. Id.
Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d
546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005). Stated differently, substantial
evidence consists of “more than a mere scintilla of
evidence but may be less than a preponderance.”
McCrea v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 370 F.3d 357, 360
(3d Cir. 2004).
substantial evidence standard is a deferential standard of
review.” Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503
(3d Cir. 2004). Accordingly, the standard places a
significant limit on the district court's scope of
review: it prohibits the reviewing court from
“weigh[ing] the evidence or substitut[ing] its
conclusions for those of the fact-finder.” Williams
v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992).
Therefore, even if this Court would have decided the matter
differently, it is bound by the ALJ's findings of fact so
long as they are supported by substantial evidence.
Hagans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 694 F.3d 287, 292
(3d Cir. 2012).
determining whether there is substantial evidence to support
the Commissioner's decision, the Court must consider:
“(1) the objective medical facts; (2) the diagnoses of
expert opinions of treating and examining physicians on
subsidiary questions of fact; (3) subjective evidence of pain
testified to by the Plaintiff and corroborated by family and
neighbors; and (4) the Plaintiff's educational
background, work history, and present age.” Holley
v. Colvin, 975 F.Supp.2d 467, 475 (D.N.J. 2013),
aff'd 590 Fed.Appx. 167 (3d Cir. 2014).
The Five-Step Disability Test
the Social Security Act (“the Act”), disability
is defined as the “inability to engage in any
substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically
determinable physical or mental impairment which can be
expected to result in death or has lasted or can be expected
to last for a continuous period of not less than 12
months.” 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1). Pursuant to her
authority under the Act, the Commissioner has promulgated
extensive regulations governing claims for DIB. The
Commissioner applies a five-step test to determine whether a
claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4). If at any stage of the five-step
procedure the Commissioner determines “that the
claimant is or is not disabled, ” the analysis ends and
“does not proceed to the next step.” Wilford
v. Colvin, No. 16-02391, 2017 WL 498719, at *4 (D.N.J.
Feb. 7, 2017). The plaintiff bears the burden of proof for
the first four steps, but the burden of production shifts to
the Commissioner at the fifth step. Id.
one, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is
currently engaged in “substantial gainful
activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i).
“Substantial gainful activity” is work activity
involving physical or mental activities that are
“usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a
profit is realized.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572. If the
claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the
analysis proceeds to step two.
two, the Commissioner must determine whether the
plaintiff's claimed impairment or combination of
impairments are “severe” within the meaning of
the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). The regulations
provide that a severe impairment is one that
“significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or
mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(c). In determining whether an adult
plaintiff's psychological impairments are “severe,
” the Commissioner must apply the “special
technique” or “Psychiatric Review
Technique” mandated by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a.
Under this technique, if the plaintiff's pertinent
symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings suggest that the
plaintiff has a medically determinable mental impairment, the
Commissioner must then evaluate the degree of functional
limitation arising from the mental impairment. Id.
This technique is a “complex and highly individualized
process” that includes ratings in four broad areas:
activities of daily living; social functioning;
concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of
decompensation. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)(3). Generally,
a plaintiff must show that they have more than
“mild” limitations in order to demonstrate the
presence of a severe mental impairment. 20 C.F.R. §
three, the Commissioner must determine whether the
plaintiff's severe impairments meet or medically equal
one of the impairments in the Listings. See
generally, 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. If the
plaintiff's impairments meet the criteria of a listed
impairment, “she is considered per se disabled.”
Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 551.
proceeding to step four, the Commissioner must evaluate the
plaintiff's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). A
plaintiff's RFC “is the most [the plaintiff] can
still do despite [their] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(1). In considering the plaintiff's RFC, the
Commissioner must consider “all medically determinable
impairments of which [she] is aware, including
[plaintiff's] medically determinable impairments that are
not ‘severe.'” 20 C.F.R. §
four, the Commissioner must determine whether the plaintiff
can perform their past relevant work given their RFC. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v); Jones, 364 F.3d at
503. If the plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant
work, at step five, the Commissioner must determine
“whether work exists in significant numbers in the
national economy that the [plaintiff] can perform given his