WILLIAMS v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
OPINION. Signed by Judge Claire C. Cecchi on 03/23/2017. (ek)
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT Of NEW JERSEY
Civil Action No.: 2:15-cv-3$3$ (CCC)
COMMISSIONER Of SOCIAL SECURITY,
CECCHI, District Judge.
Before the Court is Plaintiff Lonnie Williams’s (“Plaintiff’) appeal seeking review of a
final determination by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”)
denying his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under
1614(a)(3)(A) of the
Social Security Act (“SSA”). The issue to be decided is whether the Commissioner’s denial of
benefits is supported by substantial evidence. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the
Administrative Law Judge (“AU”) is affirmed.
Plaintiff applied for SSI on April 2, 2012, alleging disability as of that date. Tr.1 at 14.
The application was denied initially on June 18, 2012, and upon reconsideration on October 22,
“Tr.” refers to the certified record of the administrative proceedings. (ECF No. 8).
2012. Id. On January 12, 2014, a hearing was held before AU Dennis O’Leary. Id. AU O’Leary
issued a decision on March 20, 2014 finding Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined by the SSA. Id.
at 20 (citing 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.920(f)). Plaintiff requested review of the decision and the Appeals
Council denied the request on April 22, 2015. Tr. at 1. On June 8, 2015, Plaintiff instituted this
action. ECF No. 1.
Plaintiff was born on April 5, 1964. Tr. at 51. He currently lives with his mother who is
on disability. Id. at 18. Plaintiff has an eighth grade education, id. at 197, and has work experience
as a security guard, food handler, and unloading trucks. Id. Plaintiff testified he stopped working
as a security guard because he could not stand on his feet any longer. Id. at 32.
Plaintiff claimed disability due to ankle and arm fractures, a herniated disk in his neck, and
depression. Id. at 196. The ALl noted there was no medical evidence of depression in the record.
Id. at 16. When Plaintiff was thirteen years old, he injured his right elbow, which he claims still
affects him to this day. Id. at 19. Plaintiff has also been hit by a car five times, two times of which
resulted in litigation. Id. at 18-19.
On June 7, 2012, Plaintiff was examined by Dr. Justin Fernando. Id. at 301. The doctor
noted, inter alia, that “there was no evidence of any arthritic changes of the hands,” Plaintiff “was
able to move his lumbar spine normally,” “[h]is right elbow and right shoulder movements were
restricted but he would not even attempt to raise his arms,” and “movement of the lower back was
unrestricted and he had full range of motion of the lower extremities.” Id. at 301-303. Dr.
Fernando diagnosed plaintiff with a “remote history of fracture of the unlar olecranon process,
right elbow,” “no indication of any restricted mobility at the left ankle,” and a “[h]istory of disk
hemiation in the neck (no clinical indication exists to indicate disk herniation or nerve root
involvement in the lower cervical spine).” Id. at 303.
Standard of Review
This Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner’s decision under 42 U.s.c.
and I 383(c)(3). The Court is not “permitted to re-weigh the evidence or impose [its]
own factual determinations,” but must give deference to the administrative findings. Chandler v.
Comm ‘r ofSoc. Sec., 667 f.3d 356, 359 (3d Cir. 201 1); see also 42 U.S.C.
the Court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached are
rational” and supported by substantial evidence. Gober v. Matthews, 574 F.2d 772, 776 (3d Cir.
1978) (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, and is “such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Chandler, 667
f.3d at 359 (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). If the factual record is
adequately developed, substantial evidence “may be ‘something less than the weight of the
evidence, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not
prevent an administrative agency’s finding from being supported by substantial evidence.”
Daniels v. Astrue, No. 4:08-1676, 2009 WL 1011587, at *2 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 15, 2009) (quoting
Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm ‘n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). In other words, under this deferential
standard of review, the Court may not set aside the AU’s decision merely because it would have
come to a different conclusion. Cruz v. Comm ‘r ofSoc. Sec., 244 F. App’x 475, 479 (3d Cir. 2007)
(citing Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999)).
Pursuant to the SSA, in order to be eligible for benefits, a plaintiff must show he is disabled
by demonstrating an 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
which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.”
423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). Taking Into account the plaintiff’s age, education,
and work experience, disability will be evaluated by the plaintiffs ability to engage in his previous
work or any other form of substantial gainful activity existing in the national economy. 42
13$2c(a)(3)(B). A person is disabled for these purposes only if his physical or
mental impairments are “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but
cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of
substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.
Decisions regarding disability will be made individually and will be “based on evidence
adduced at a hearing.” Sykes v. Apfel, 22$ F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Heckler v.
Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 467 (1983)). Congress has established the type of evidence necessary to
prove the existence of a disabling impairment by defining a physical or mental impairment as “an
impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are
demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C.
Sequential Evaluation Process
The Social Security Administration follows a five-step, sequential evaluation to determine
whether a plaintiff is disabled within the meaning of the statute. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520, 416.920.
First, the ALl must determine whether the plaintiff is currently engaged in gainful activity. Sykes,
22$ F.3d at 262. Second, if he is not, the AU determines whether the Plaintiff has an impairment
that limits his ability to work. Id. Third, if he has such an impairment, the AU considers the
medical evidence to determine whether the impairment is listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1 (the “Listings”). If it is, this results in a presumption of disability.
I If the
impairment is not in the Listings, the AU must determine how much residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) the applicant retains in spite of his impairment. Id. at 263. fourth, the AU must consider
whether the plaintiffs RFC is enough to perform his past relevant work. Id. fifth, if his RFC is
not enough, the AU must determine whether there is other work in the national economy the
plaintiff can perform. Id.
The evaluation continues through each step unless it is determined at any point the plaintiff
is or is not disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The plaintiff bears the burden
of proof at steps one, two, and four, upon which the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five.
Sykes, 228 f.3d at 263. Neither party bears the burden at step three. Id. at 263 n.2.
Summary of the AU’s Findings
At step one, the AU found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the SSA and
had not engaged in substantial gainful work activity since the application date. Tr. at 16. At steps
two and three, the AU found Plaintiffs impairments of status post arm and ankle injuries with
degenerative disc disease of the spine were “severe,” but not severe enough to meet, either
individually or in combination, any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R.
§ 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1. Id. at 16-17.
The ALl concluded Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the
exertional demands of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.967(b). Id. at 17. The AU found
Plaintiff is able to lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; able to
stand and/or walk up to six hours and to sit at least six hours out of an eight-hour work day. Id.
To make this conclusion, the AU considered all of Plaintiffs symptoms and their consistency
with the evidence. Id. Specifically, the AU considered Plaintiffs testimony that he was unable
to stand for long periods of time, or lift items with his arm. Id. at 17-18. The AU also considered
the medical evidence on record, including Plaintiffs x-rays, MRIs and the reports of Dr. Justin
Fernando and the state agency medical reviewers. Id. at 18.
At step four, the AU found Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a
door security guard, as the “work does not require the performance of work-related activities
precluded by” Plaintiffs RFC. Id. at 19.
Plaintiff makes the following arguments in support of his contention that the AU’s
decision should be remanded: (1) the AU should have found Plaintiff meets Listings 1.04 and
3.02, and (2) the AU’s decision that Plaintiff can perform light work was not supported by
substantial evidence. The Court will address each argument in turn.
The AU’s Step Three Analysis was Supported by Substantial
The Listings assessed at step three describe impairments the Commissioner considers
severe enough to prevent an individual from engaging in any gainful activity, regardless of age,
education, or work experience. 20 C.F.R.
The Listings describe impairments giving
rise to presumptive disability, i.e., if an individual meets a listing, he is considered to be disabled
without consideration of whether he can perform work activity. Id.
v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532 (1990) (citations omitted). To be found presumptively disabled, a
claimant must show all of the criteria for a listing have been met. 20 C.F.R.
Zebley, 493 U.S. at 530.
Plaintiff argues this case should be remanded because Plaintiff is presumptively disabled,
as he meets Listings 1.04(A) and 3.02. P1. Br. at 17. The Court finds the step three analysis was
supported by substantial evidence, and will address each listing in turn.
To meet Listing 1.04(A), which deals with disorders of the spine, Plaintiff must show
“[e]vidence of nerve root compression characterized by neruo-anatomic distribution of pain,
limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss.
accompanied by sensory or reflex loss, and if there
is involvement of the lower back, positive straight-leg raising test (sitting and supine).” 20 C.F.R.
pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1
1.04(A). The AU found Plaintiff did not meet the requirements for
Listing 1.04(A), explaining:
the medical evidence does not establish the requisite evidence of nerve root
compression, spinal arachnoiditis or significant and disabling lumbar spinal
stenosis as required by the listing. The claimant was able to move his spine almost
normally, with only one range significantly restricted, extension of the cervical
spine. He has been able to perform substantial gainful activity since his accidents
and he has not undergone any treatment for many years.
Tr. at 17.
Plaintiff argues that the AU erred in this finding because the medical evidence does in fact
show that Plaintiff suffered from nerve root compression. P1. Br. at 19. However, the AU’s
finding was that Plaintiff did not suffer from requisite nerve root compression, not that he did not
suffer from nerve root compression at all. Tr. at 17. The Listing requires that Plaintiff suffer from
nerve root compression such that it was characterized by a limitation of motion of the spine.
Listing 1.04(A). The AU explained that Plaintiff was able to move his spine almost normally,
and had been able to engage in substantial gainful activity since the accidents which injured his
back. Tr. at 17. Accordingly, the AU’s decision that Plaintiff did not meet all of the requirements
for Listing 1.04(A) was supported by substantial evidence.
To meet Listing 3.02, dealing with chronic pulmonary insufficiency, a Plaintiff must meet
the requisite forced expiratory volume in the first second of a forced expiratory maneuver
(“FEy 1”), which involves deeply inhaling and exhaling into a spirometer. See Moyer v. Astrue,
No. 4:1 1-CV-l 186, 2012 WL 3765192, at *4, n.15 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 29, 2012). To meet this listing,
Plaintiffs FEV1 measurement must be equal to or less than 1.85.2 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpt. P,
Plaintiffs FEV 1 was equal to 3.53, Tr. at 314, and thus Plaintiff does not meet
the requirements for Listing 3.02.
Plaintiff argues that the listing is met because Plaintiffs FEVY measurement was 0.90. P1.
Br. at 21. However, Plaintiffs reading of the results is incorrect.
The test results indicate
Plaintiffs FEV1/FVC measurement is 0.90, and that his FEV1 measurement is 3.53. FVC, or
forced vital capacity, is the total volume of air expired after full inspiration, and “[t]he fEV1!fVC
ratio is the percentage of the vital capacity which is expired in the first second of maximal
expiration.” Thompson v. Colvin, No. 4:12CV01530-CDP, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136778, at
*fffl, n.3 (E.D. Mo. Sep. 24, 2013). Listing 3.02 does not have criteria regarding a plaintiffs
FEV1/fVC measurement. However, “the FEV1 to FVC ratio is typically 80-85 percent or greater
in healthy patients younger than 40 years old.” Moyer, 2012 WL 3765192, at *4, n.15 (citing
Spirometry 360, http ://depts.washington.eduJimtr/spirotrainlwhat/ interpret/index.html). Whereas
here, Plaintiffs fEV1 to FVC ratio was 90%, this measurement is in the normal range, and does
not indicate a pulmonary impairment. Accordingly, the Court finds the AU’s analysis at step
three was supported by substantial evidence.
This measurement is for an adult male equal to 71 inches in height. This is Plaintiffs height as
documented in the medical record. Tr. at 302. for a man of 69 inches to meet the listing, Plaintiffs
self-reported height, Id. at 196, his fEV1 measurement must be equal to or less than 1.60.
The AU’s RFC Finding was Supported by Substantial Evidence
Plaintiff argues the AU’s RFC finding was not supported by substantial evidence because
Plaintiffs exertional limitations prevent him from performing light work. P1. Br. at 27. Further,
Plaintiff argues the AU failed to consider Plaintiffs testimony and test results. P1. Br. at 28.
While an RFC assessment “must include a narrative discussion describing how the
evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g., laboratory findings) and
nonmedical evidence (e.g., daily activities, observations),” Titles II & XVI: Assessing Residual
Functional Capacity in Initial Claims, SSR 96-$P (S.S.A. July 2, 1996), Plaintiff here only argues
the AU should have interpreted the medical evidence differently. P1. Br. 27-28. Under the
substantial evidence standard of review, the issue is whether sufficient evidence reasonably
supports the AU’s analysis, not whether the evidence could support a different finding. See Logan
v. Colvin, No. 14-4571, 2015 WL 5722391, at *7 (D.N.J. Sept. 29, 2015) (finding “[t]he role of
the District Court in reviewing an AU’s denial of disability benefits is not to reweigh the evidence
presented, but instead to determine whether the AU made a decision supported by substantial
The AU “must give serious consideration to a claimant’s subjective complaints of pain,
even where those complaints are not supported by objective evidence.” Mason v. Shalala, 994
F.2d 1058, 1067 (3d Cir. 1993) (citing Ferguson v. Schweiker, 765 F.2d 31, 37 (3d Cir. 1985)).
However, in making such credibility determinations, the AU is given great discretion, and his
findings are entitled to judicial deference. See Holley v. Comm ‘r ofSoc. Sec., 590 F. App’x 167,
169 (3d Cir. 2014) (noting that an AU’s credibility determinations regarding plaintiffs statements
are entitled to deference); see also Metz v. Fed. Mine Safety & Health Review Comm ‘n, 532 F.
App’x 309, 312 (3d Cir. 2013) (“Overturning an AU’s credibility determination is an
‘extraordinary step,’ as credibility determinations are entitled to a great deal of deference.”).
The Court finds the AU’s RFC analysis was supported by substantial evidence. The AU
considered Plaintiffs subjective complaints and the extent to which these complaints were
consistent with the medical evidence in the record. The AU noted that Plaintiffs “reasons for
why he cannot work are either things he has had most of his life, like the arm injury, or things that
cause only moderate limitations, such as his ankle.” Tr. at 1$. The AU found the medical
evidence mainly “consists of the same x-rays and MRIs submitted multiple times. There is no
record of any actual ongoing treatment,” and Plaintiff “takes no medication.” Id. The AU found
Plaintiffs answers in his testimony and financial history “very lacking in credibility.” Id.
Moreover, the AU found the medical evidence consistent with a finding that Plaintiff could
perform light work.
The AU explained that during the consultative examination, Plaintiff
“reported he injured his right elbow at the age of 13 and that he had been hit by a car five times.”
Id. at 19. The doctor noted, inter alia, that “there was no evidence of any arthritic changes of the
hands,” “he was able to move his lumbar spine normally,” “[h]is right elbow and right shoulder
movements were restricted but he would not even attempt to raise his arms,” “movement of the
lower back was unrestricted,” and “he had full range of motion of the lower extremities.” Id. The
AU also explained that he afforded considerable weight to the medical reviewers, who found that
Plaintiff was capable of light work. Accordingly, the Court finds the AU’s RFC determination
was supported by substantial evidence.3
Plaintiff argues the AU should have found Plaintiff was disabled pursuant to a Grid used for a
person with a sedentary RFC. P1. Br. at 28. However, as the Court finds the AUJ’s decision that
Plaintiff was capable of performing light work was supported by substantial evidence, the Court
need not reach this argument.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court affirms the AU’s decision. An appropriate order
accompanies this Opinion.
CLAIRE C. CECCHI, U.S.D.J.
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