IBANIBO v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
OPINION. Signed by Judge Kevin McNulty on 8/17/2015. (ld, )
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
Civ. No. 14-cv-2303 (KM)
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
KEVIN MCNULTY, U.S.D.J.:
Edward Ibanibo brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g) and 5
§ 1383(c)(3) to review the final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security (“Commissioner”) denying his claim for Title II Disability Insurance
Benefits (“DIB”). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner’s decision
Ibanibo filed an application for DIB on April 28, 2008, alleging that since
April 5, 2007, he has been unable to engage in substantial gainful activity
because he suffers from coronary artery disease, hypertension, ischemia, and
other cardiac impairments. (R. 276)
His application was denied on September
18, 2008. (R. 47) Ibanibo then requested a hearing before an Administrative
Law Judge (“AU”). A hearing was held before AU James Andres on April 15,
2010. (R. 2 1-44). Ibanibo testified at the hearing. (Id.) On April 29, 2010, Judge
Andres issued a decision finding that Ibanibo was not disabled. (R. 11-17)
Ibanibo appealed the denial, but the Appeals Counsel declined to review it,
“R.” refers to the pages of the administrative record filed by the Commissioner as
part of her answer. (Dkt. No. 5)
rendering it a final decision. (R. 1-6) Ibanibo then filed his initial petition for
review in this court.
On July 18, 2012, District Judge Claire C. Cecchi issued an opinion that
affirmed in part and remanded in part the AU’s decision. (R. 324-40) Pursuant
to the Court’s remand order, the Appeals Council directed the AU
Ibanibo’s diagnosis of ischemic heart disease at Step 2 and his diagnoses of
hypertension, a post-repaired aortic aneurysm, and ischemic heart disease, at
Step 3 of the five-step evaluation process (see infra Section II.A.). (R. 274, 324—
40) On remand, Ibanibo was provided with an additional hearing, which
occurred on March 26, 2013. On May 24, 2013, AU Richard West issued a
second unfavorable decision. (R. 274-80) On June 27, 2013, Ibanibo appealed
the denial. (R. 268-70) On March 13, 2014, the Appeals Council denied the
appeal, rending Judge West’s decision final and ripe for review. (R. 262-67) (In
the remainder of this opinion, “AU” refers to Judge West unless otherwise
To qualify for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits, a claimant must meet
the insured status requirements of 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(c). The claimant must show
that he is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of any
medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to
result in death or that has lasted (or can be expected to last) for a continuous
period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A).
A. Five-Step Process and this Court’s Standard of Review
Under the authority of the Social Security Act, 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.
Review by the district court of an AU’s decision to award or deny benefits
necessarily incorporates a determination of whether the AU
this five-step process. The steps may be briefly summarized as follows:
Step One: Determine whether the claimant has engaged in substantial
gainful activity since the onset date of the alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(b), 4 16.920(b). If not, move to step two.
Step Two: Determine if the claimant’s alleged impairment, or
combination of impairments, is “severe.” Id. § 404.1520(c),
4 16.920(c). If the claimant has a severe impairment, move to step
Step Three: Determine whether the impairment meets or equals
the criteria of any impairment found in the Listing of Impairments.
20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, Pt. A. If so, the claimant is
automatically eligible to receive benefits; if not, move to step four.
Id. § 404.1520(d), 4 16.920(d).
Step Four: Determine whether, despite any severe impairment, the
claimant retains the “residual functional capacity” to perform past
relevant work. Id. § 404. 1520(e)—(f), 416.920(e)—(f). If not, move to step
Step Five: At this point, the burden shifts to the SSA to
demonstrate that the claimant, considering her age, education,
work experience, and residual functional capacity, is capable of
performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national
economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g), 416.920(g); see Poulos v.
Comm’rof Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 88, 91—92 (3d Cir. 2007). If so,
benefits will be denied; if not, they will be awarded.
As to all legal issues, this Court conducts a plenary review. Schaudeck v.
Comm’rof Soc. Sec., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). As to factual findings,
this Court adheres to the AU’s findings, as long as they are supported by
substantial evidence. Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004)
(citing 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g)). Where facts are disputed, this Court will “determine
whether the administrative record contains substantial evidence supporting the
findings.” Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000). “Substantial
evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Zimsak v. Colvin, 777 F.3d 607, 610 (3d
Cir. 2014) (internal quotation and citation omitted). That “is more than a mere
scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence.” Id.
(internal quotation and citation omitted).
[I]n evaluating whether substantial evidence supports the AU’s
leniency should be shown in establishing the claimant’s
the Secretary’s responsibility to rebut it should
construed. Due regard for the beneficent purposes of the
legislation requires that a more tolerant standard be used in this
administrative proceeding than is applicable in a typical suit in a
court of record where the adversary system prevails.
Reefer v. Bamhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003) (internal citations and
quotations omitted). When there is substantial evidence to support the AU’s
factual findings, this Court must abide by them. See Jones, 364 F.3d at 503
(citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)); Zimsak, 777 F.3d at 610—11 (“[W]e are mindful that
we must not substitute our own judgment for that of the fact finder.”).
This Court may, under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), affirm, modify, or reverse the
Secretary’s decision, or may remand the matter to the Secretary for a
rehearing. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984); Bordes v.
Commissioner, 235 F. App’x 853, 865—66 (3d Cir. 2007).
B. The AU’s Decision
The AU concluded that Ibanibo was not disabled. His determinations are
At Step One, the AU found that Ibanibo did not engage in substantial
gainful activity from April 5, 2007, the onset date of his alleged disability,
through December 31, 2012, his last insured date. (R. 276)
At Step Two, the AU found that Ibanibo suffered from the following
severe impairments: “coronary artery disease; hypertension; status post repair
of a dissecting aortic aneurysm; and a history of ischemic heart disease.” (Id.)
The AU noted that this finding regarding Ibanibo’s ischemia directly followed
from the Court’s order, stating:
In consideration of the District Court’s direction that the
undersigned consider whether the claimant had a severe
impairment involving ischemic heart disease, the undersigned finds
this impairment severe. The undersigned notes that a May 30, 2007
nuclear stress test was positive for ischemia. However, a subsequent
December 11, 2008 stress test was negative for ischemia. As such
the undersigned finds that the claimant did suffer from a severe
impairment of ischemia.
(Id. at 276-77)
At Step Three, the AU determined that Ibanibo’s impairments did not
meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20
C.F.R. Pt. 404 Subpt. P, App. 1. (Id. at 277)
At Step Four, the ALT found that Ibanibo had the residual functional
capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR
404.1567(a). “Although the claimant suffers some limitations due to his
impairments, and as a result, his capacity to perform work is affected,” the AU
found, he nonetheless retains the residual functional capacity to perform “the
exertional demands of a full range of sedentary work which requires lifting and
carrying objects weighing up to 10 pounds; frequently lifting and carrying
objects weighing less than 10 pounds; and standing and walking for two hours
and sitting for up to six hours in an eight-hour day.” (Id. at 279)
At Step Five, the AU found that Ibanibo was capable of performing past
relevant work as an income specialist and financial consultant because that
work did not require any activities beyond his residual functional capacity. (Id.
at 280) Such a finding, as noted above, requires the ALT to conclude that a
claimant is not disabled. Here, the ALT ultimately found that Ibanibo was not
disabled from April 5, 2008, through December 31, 2012, within the meaning
of the Social Security Act, and consequently was not entitled to Disability
Insurance Benefits. (Id.)
C. Ibanibo’s Appeal
Ibanibo contends on appeal that the AU’s decision is not supported by
substantial evidence. He argues in particular that the
erred at Step 3 by
failing—in violation of this Court’s prior order—to consider whether his severe
impairment of ischemia, whether individually or in combination with his other
impairments, was medically equivalent to one of the Commissioner’s listed
impairments. (P1. Br., Dkt. No. 8, at 16) This oversight, Ibanibo says, fatally
undermines the AU’s conclusion at Steps 4 and 5 that he possessed the
residual functional capacity to resume his past relevant work.
Ibanibo does not appear to contest the AU’s determination at Step 3 that
none of his impairments, considered individually, were medically equivalent to
any of the Commissioner’s listings. Ibanibo does maintain, however, that the
AU failed to adequately analyze his impairments in combination. In support,
Ibanbo cites Ton-es v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 279 F. App’x 149 (3d Cir. 2008).
The claimant bears the burden of proving that his impairments, whether
individually or collectively, equal or meet those listed in Appendix 1. However,
“if a claimant’s impairment does not match one listed in Appendix 1, the AU is
required to perform a comparison between the claimant’s impairment(s) and
those listed in Appendix 1.” Ton-es, 279 F. App’x at 15 1-52; see also 20 C.F.R.
404.1526(b). The Third Circuit has stated that it is the AU’s “responsibility
to identify the relevant listed impairment(s)” and “develop the arguments both
for and against granting benefits.” Burnett v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112,
120 n. 2 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 111(2000)).
Ibanibo insists that that the combined effects of his impairments are
medically equivalent to the Commissioner’s listings, but he does not specify
how. See Cosby v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 231 Fed. Appx. 140, 146 (3d Cir. 2007)
(affirming denial of plaintiff’s appeal where she failed to “argue or even suggest
which listing the AU
should have applied, nor [did] she point to any medical
evidence ignored by the AU that would show that [her] impairments medically
equaled one of the listings.”) For example, Ibanibo critiques the AU’s decision
for not offering “analysis of plaintiff’s ischemic heart disease under paragraph
4.04A1, A2, A3, A4 or A5.” (P1. Brief, Dkt. No. 8, at 20). However, he points to
no medical evidence that either demonstrates medical equivalence with those
subsections or that was otherwise overlooked by the AU. Rivera v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., 164 Fed. Appx. 260, 262 (3d Cir. 2006) (“The claimant must provide
sufficient medical evidence in step three to show that her impairment is equal
in severity to a listed impairment, but need not identify the relevant listings.”)
The AU is “not require[d]. .to use particular language or adhere to a
particular format in conducting his analysis.” Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501,
505 (3d Cir. 2004) Rather, the Third Circuit instructs district courts to
determine, in light of the decision as a whole, whether the AL] considered the
appropriate factors at Step Three. Id. (finding that “the AU’s decision, read as
a whole, illustrates that the AU considered the appropriate factors in reaching
the conclusion that [the plaintiff] did not meet the requirements for any
listing”). See also Burnett, 220 F.3d at 120 (mere “conclusory statements” are
“beyond meaningful judicial review”).
The AL] here sufficiently developed the record and explained his findings
at Step Three, permitting meaningful review. The AU’s discussion of the
objective medical evidence as well as the weight he gave to the opinion of
Ibanibo’s treating physician were thorough and sufficient. The AL] expressly
states that “specific consideration was given to the listings in sections 4.04 and
4.10” and that “there is no evidence which demonstrates [the] criteria” of those
listings. (R. 277) Substantial evidence supports that finding. As noted by the
AL], although Ibanibo was diagnosed with a descending thoracic aortic
dissection in April 2007, his condition materially improved after surgery. (R.
278) “His pain was immediately relieved postoperatively and his blood pressure
became manageable.” (Id.) He was also able to walk and ambulate without
assistance, and a chest CT performed following the surgery did not indicate any
abnormalities. (IcL) Although a May 30, 2007 nuclear stress test was positive
for ischemia, “a Holter monitor was negative for arrhythmia” and “[a] 2D
echocardiogram showed normal LV function.” (Id.) During a follow-up exam,
Ibanibo’s cardiac specialist, Dr. Preet Randhawa, found that he was only
suffering “mild symptoms” and that his coronary artery disease was “mild-tomoderate.” (R. 195) Moreover, a December 11, 2008 stress test was negative for
ischemia. (R. 246)
The AU’s decision in this case is thus very distinguishable from the
decision reviewed in Torres. There, the AU’s analysis under Steps Two and
Three consisted of only “one cursory paragraph.” Torres, 279 F. App’x at 152.
By contrast, the AU
here cited the evidence and “set forth the reasons for his
decision” that Ibanibo’s impairments were not, individually or collectively,
medically equivalent in severity to one of the listed impairments. Id.
Accordingly, I find no error in the AU’s Step Three analysis. The AU
elucidated an evidentiary basis, grounded in record evidence, for his
determinations regarding the listings. To require more would be to disregard
the Third Circuit’s instructions, see Jones 364 F.3d at 505, and “elevate form
over substance.” Padilla v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 2010 WL 2346650, at *5 (D.N.J.
June 9, 2010).
For the foregoing reasons, the AU’s decision is AFFIRMED.
An appropriate order will issue.
KEVIN MCNULTY, U.S.D.J.
Date: August 17, 2015
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