SANCHEZ v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
OPINION. Signed by Judge William J. Martini on 12/10/15. (gh, )
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
Civ. No. 2:14-cv-05735 (WJM)
IRIS N. SANCHEZ,
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.:
Plaintiff Iris N. Sanchez brings this action seeking review of a final determination
by the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying her Title XVI
application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). For the reasons that follow, the
Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED.
A. The Five-Step Sequential Analysis
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. 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. 20 C.F.R.
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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g),
416.920(g); see Poulos v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 88, 91–92 (3d Cir. 2007) (citations
B. Standard of Review
For the purpose of this appeal, the Court conducts a plenary review of the legal
issues. See Schaudeck v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999).
The factual findings of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) are reviewed “only to
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 “less
than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla.” Jones v. Barnhart,
364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). Substantial evidence means “such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Id. When substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ’s factual findings, this Court must
abide by the ALJ’s determinations. See id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).
Sanchez is a forty-six year old Paterson, New Jersey resident who seeks a finding
of disability due to rheumatoid arthritis, HIV, and Hepatitis B or C. Administrative
Transcript (“Tr.”). 157, 161–62. Sanchez has a seventh-grade education, speaks English,
and previously worked in retail and as a secretary. Tr. 25, 194.
In September 2009, Sanchez applied for SSI benefits under Title XVI. Tr. 157.
Sanchez alleged that her disability arose in January 2003. Tr. 162. After both her initial
application and her request for reconsideration were denied, Sanchez requested an
administrative hearing. Tr. 71–72, 137–43. Following an October 2011 hearing, the ALJ
denied Sanchez’s claim. The ALJ determined that, in spite of Sanchez’s severe rheumatoid
arthritis and other non-severe impairments (including anxiety, HIV, kidney stones, and
Hepatitis), she could perform a number of sedentary jobs that did not require repetitive fine
fingering manipulations and, therefore, was not disabled. Tr. 19–33. In February 2013,
the Appeals Counsel denied Sanchez’s request to review the ALJ’s decision. Tr. 6–11.
Sanchez now appeals.
A. Summary of the Record
The record contains medical reports from treating physicians Drs. Abas Rezvani and
Harleen Brar, reports from two consultative examiners, Drs. Naphtali Britman and
Raymond Briski, medical records from St. Joseph’s Hospital (where Sanchez was treated
as an outpatient), Sanchez’s initial application and hearing testimony, and interrogatory
responses from vocational expert (“VE”) Rocco Meola.
Dr. Rezvani treated Sanchez from May 2007 to September 2009 for renal stones and
renal colic. Tr. 311. He indicated that she was able to go to work and had no functional
limitations. Tr. 311–13.
Dr. Brar treated Sanchez for rheumatoid arthritis on an ongoing basis. Sanchez’s
level of pain varied throughout the relevant period. In December 2009, she had pain-free
range of motion in her hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders; in January 2010, she had
painful swelling of the knees and ankles; in February 2011, she had pain in her hands and
knees, but not in her hips, and her range of motion was normal; in July 2011, her
rheumatoid arthritis was uncontrolled despite medication, but by October 2011, her knee,
hip, and neck pain were better. Tr. 417–18, 508, 515–16, 521.
Dr. Britman completed Sanchez’s Disability Determination Services (“DDS”)
report. Tr. 414. That report indicated that Sanchez could sit for up to six hours in an eighthour workday and had no manipulative limitations. Tr. 408–10. The DDS report further
stated that Sanchez could lift up to ten pounds and occasionally climb ramps and stairs. Tr.
408–09. Dr. Briski reviewed and affirmed Dr. Britman’s findings. Tr. 439.
Sanchez’s outpatient records from St. Joseph’s Hospital indicated that she is HIV
positive, but that her HIV is controlled with medication and stable. Tr. 444, 447, 452. Her
records also stated that she has controlled and inactive Hepatitis. Tr. 318–19, 459.
In her initial application for SSI benefits, Sanchez stated that: (1) she cooks meals;
(2) cares for her children; (3) walks her children to school; (4) shops for food, clothes and
toiletries; (5) uses public transportation; and (6) spends between six and seven hours once
a week cleaning. Tr. 173–176.
Sanchez testified as follows. She takes medication for her rheumatoid arthritis,
bladder pain, and HIV, which cause nausea, drowsiness, and headaches. Tr. 48–55. She
walks with a cane and experiences daily pain due to her rheumatoid arthritis. Tr. 56, 58–
61. She takes Xanax for anxiety attacks, which is prescribed by her primary care doctor,
not a psychiatrist. Tr. 54, 68. She lives with her two children in a first floor apartment and
climbs five steps to get inside. Tr. 64. She goes shopping, but cannot lift a five-pound bag
of food at the grocery store, so her daughter does it for her. Tr. 63. Her children clean the
house and make their own beds, but Sanchez makes her own bed and prepares meals. Tr.
63–64. She cannot sit for more than fifteen to twenty-five minutes, cannot stand for more
than fifteen minutes, and cannot walk for more than half a block. Tr. 62, 65.
Interrogatories to VE Rocco Meola asked him to consider someone of Sanchez’s
age, education, and work experience who had a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to
perform sedentary work, but could not do continual and repetitive fine fingering
manipulations, and could only perform one to two step tasks as a result of side effects from
medication and anxiety. Tr. 28, 29, 246. Meola concluded that such an individual could
find work as a hand mounter, preparer, or carding machine operator. Tr. 29, 247. He
opined that there were 1,800 such jobs regionally, and 20,000 of them nationally. Tr. 29,
B. The ALJ’s Decision
At step one, the ALJ determined that Sanchez had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the application date. Tr. 24. At step two, the ALJ determined that Sanchez’s
rheumatoid arthritis was severe, but that her HIV, Hepatitis, anxiety, and kidney stones
were not severe because they did not significantly impair her ability to do basic work
activity. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that the severity of Sanchez’s impairments,
individually or combined, did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments in
20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, Part A. Tr. 25.
At step four, the ALJ determined that Sanchez has the residual functioning capacity
(“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, but could not do work that required continual and
repetitive fine finger manipulation, and could perform tasks involving only one to two steps
to complete. Tr. 25. Therefore, the ALJ determined that she could not perform any past
relevant work. Tr. 28.
At step five, the ALJ relied on the VE’s interrogatory answers to conclude that,
given her RFC, Sanchez was capable of performing work as a carding machine operator, a
hand mounter, or a preparer. Tr. 28–29. The ALJ found that these positions existed in
significant numbers in the national economy. Id. In light of these findings, the ALJ
concluded that Sanchez was not disabled under the Act. Id.
In determining that Sanchez was capable of such work, the ALJ noted that no doctor
had ever reported Sanchez to be disabled or unable to work. Tr. 27. In fact, the ALJ noted
that Sanchez goes shopping, does light housekeeping, and prepares meals. Tr. 27. The
ALJ also noted that DDS found Sanchez had the ability to perform sedentary work with
only occasional climbing of ramps and stairs. Tr. 27. Finally, the ALJ stated that Sanchez
attended the hearing with earrings and well-coiffed hair—suggesting that she “is able to
use her hands for fine finger manipulations on at least an occasional basis.” Tr. 27.
The ALJ further ruled that Sanchez’s testimony regarding the intensity, persistence,
and limiting effects of her symptoms was not credible. Tr. 26. In particular, the ALJ
contrasted Sanchez’s claims of daily pain with medical reports indicating that her kidney
stones did not limit her ability to work, her HIV and Hepatitis were well-controlled, and
her rheumatoid arthritis was “mild” and improving. Tr. 26–27.
Sanchez challenges the ALJ’s determination that she is not disabled under the Social
Security Act, arguing that: (1) the ALJ erred in finding her HIV, Hepatitis, anxiety, and
kidney stones were non-severe; (2) the ALJ erred in determining that her rheumatoid
arthritis did not meet the criteria of a listed impairment; (3) the ALJ did not properly
determine the credibility of her testimony; and (4) the VE incorrectly identified three jobs
that Sanchez could perform when, in fact, she cannot perform those jobs.
A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Finding Sanchez’s Impairments Non-Severe
Sanchez argues that the ALJ erred at step two when he found that her HIV, Hepatitis,
anxiety, and kidney stones were not severe. The Court disagrees.
A medical impairment is “severe” when it significantly limits an individual’s ability
to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 416.921. An impairment is not severe,
however, where the record demonstrates merely a “slight abnormality or a combination of
slight abnormalities” that has, individually or in the aggregate, “‘no more than a minimal
effect on an individual’s ability to work.’” Magwood v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 417 Fed.
App’x 130, 132 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Newell v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 347 F.3d 541, 546
(3d Cir. 2003)). If an ALJ finds in favor of a claimant at step two, it is harmless error to
erroneously conclude that some of the claimant’s other impairments were not severe.
Salles v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 229 Fed. App’x 140, 145 n. 2 (3d Cir. 2007); see also Padilla
v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., No. CIV.A. 14-007 JBS, 2015 WL 1006262, at *9 n. 10 (D.N.J.
Mar. 6, 2015) (“[E]ven if an ALJ erroneously determines at step two that one impairment
is not ‘severe,’ the ALJ’s ultimate decision may still be based on substantial evidence if
the ALJ considered the effects of that impairment at steps three through five.”).
The ALJ found in Sanchez’s favor at step two by determining that her rheumatoid
arthritis was a severe impairment. Therefore, any error in concluding that Sanchez’s other
impairments were not severe is harmless. Salles, 229 Fed. App’x at 145 n. 2. Moreover,
substantial evidence in the administrative record supports the ALJ’s step two
determination. Sanchez’s HIV and Hepatitis are both controlled. Tr. 318–19, 444–47. She
does not received any psychiatric treatment for anxiety, and is prescribed Xanax by her
family doctor. Tr. 68. Her kidney stones do not prevent her from working. Tr. 311–13.
B. Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ’s Step Three Finding
Sanchez argues that the ALJ erred in finding that her rheumatoid arthritis, by itself
or when considered in conjunction with her other impairments, did not meet the criteria of
a disabling impairment. The Court disagrees.
At step three, the burden is on the claimant to show that an impairment meets or
equals a listing-level impairment. See Salles, 229 Fed. App’x at 144. In order to show that
inflammatory arthritis equals a listing level impairment, a person must have “persistent
inflammation or deformity [in a joint] . . . resulting in the inability to perform fine and
gross movements effectively.” 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 14.09A. Examples of
an inability to perform fine and gross movements include “the inability to prepare a simple
meal and feed oneself, [and] the inability to take care of personal hygiene[.]” 20 C.F.R.
Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 1.00B(2)(c).
Here, Sanchez testified that she prepares meals for herself and her children. The
ALJ further noted that she presented at the hearing with well-coiffed hair and earrings—
indicating that she is able to take care of personal hygiene. Sanchez did not provide any
evidence demonstrating otherwise. Accordingly, Sanchez did not show that her arthritis
equals the listing-level impairment.
At step three, the ALJ also considered the totality of Sanchez’s impairments. The
ALJ noted that: (1) her nephrologist had stated that Sanchez was able to work without
limitation; (2) her HIV and Hepatitis were both stable and controlled; (3) DDS determined
that Sanchez was able to perform sedentary work, (4) Sanchez had never seen a psychiatrist
for her anxiety; and (5) no doctor has claimed Sanchez is disabled or otherwise unable to
work for any reason. After considering each of Sanchez’s impairments, the ALJ concluded
that Sanchez was “more or less fully functional,” accounting for limitations based on her
medication side effects and anxiety at steps four and five.
C. The ALJ’s Credibility Assessment was not Erroneous
Sanchez challenges the ALJ’s decision not to credit her testimony describing the
intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her pain. This challenge is meritless.
While a plaintiff’s testimony of subjective pain and inability to perform even light
work is normally entitled to great weight, an ALJ may reject those claims if he or she
explains why they are inconsistent with the medical evidence of record. See Harkins v.
Comm’rr of Soc. Sec., 399 Fed. App’x 731, 735 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Matullo v. Bowen,
926 F.2d 240, 245 (3d Cir. 1990)). Moreover, when determining the credibility of a
plaintiff’s testimony, an ALJ may consider a plaintiff’s medical treatment and ability to
perform daily tasks. See Harkins, 399 Fed. App’x at 735; Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358,
362 (3d Cir. 1999).
In this case, the ALJ gave several well-supported reasons for his credibility
determination. First, the ALJ pointed out that, although Sanchez claimed to have daily
pain, her medical records showed that her impairments were generally controlled with
medication or improved. Second, the ALJ noted that, despite Sanchez’s testimony that she
has pain in her hands and cannot do fine fingering manipulations, she presented at the
hearing with well-coiffed hair and earrings. Third, the ALJ considered Sanchez’s ability
to perform daily tasks, i.e., light housekeeping and meal preparation. Finally, the ALJ
noted that no doctor had ever opined that Sanchez was disabled or could not work.
D. Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ’s Step Five Determination
Sanchez argues that the ALJ erred in relying upon the VE’s assessment at step five.
Sanchez essentially disagrees with the VE’s conclusion that the sedentary jobs of preparer,
hand mounter, and carding machine operator do not require repetitive fine fingering
manipulations. This argument holds no water. Sanchez’s claim that these jobs “appear”
to require repetitive fine fingering manipulation is directly contradicted by the Dictionary
of Occupational Titles (“DOT”), which states that all three of these jobs require only
occasional fingering. See DOT at 1991 WL 678937 (preparer), 1991 WL 688613 (hand
mounter), 1991 WL 678151 (card machine operator). Thus, ALJ did not err in relying
upon the VE’s testimony in determining that Sanchez was not disabled.
For the foregoing reasons, the Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED. An
appropriate order follows.
/s/ William J. Martini
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.
Date: December 10, 2015
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