PLACENCIA v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
OPINION. Signed by Judge Stanley R. Chesler on 12/20/2016. (seb)
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
Civil Action No. 15-5087 (SRC)
CHESLER, District Judge
This matter comes before the Court on the appeal by Plaintiff Eusebio Placencia
(“Plaintiff”) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”)
determining that he was not disabled under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). This Court
exercises jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and, having considered the submissions of
the parties without oral argument, pursuant to L. CIV. R. 9.1(b), finds that the Commissioner’s
decision will be affirmed.
In brief, this appeal arises from Plaintiff’s application for disability insurance benefits,
alleging disability beginning December 1, 2007. A hearing was held before ALJ Richard West
(the “ALJ”) on March 30, 2012, and the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision on May 10,
2012, finding Plaintiff not disabled prior to May 27, 2010 and disabled as of May 27, 2010.
After the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, the ALJ’s decision became the
Commissioner’s final decision, and Plaintiff filed this appeal. Plaintiff appeals only the
unfavorable determination, and this Opinion will address only that portion of the ALJ’s decision.
In the decision of May 10, 2012, the ALJ found that, at step three, Plaintiff did not meet
or equal any of the Listings. At step four, the ALJ found that, prior to May 27, 2010, Plaintiff
retained the residual functional capacity to perform less than a full range of medium work. At
step four, the ALJ also found that, prior to May 27, 2010, this residual functional capacity was
sufficient to allow Plaintiff to perform his past relevant work as a maintenance worker. The ALJ
concluded that, prior to May 27, 2010, Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act.
On appeal, Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner’s decision should be reversed because
the step four residual functional capacity determination is not based on substantial evidence.
Plaintiff's case on appeal suffers from two principal defects: 1) its failure to deal with the
issue of the burden of proof at the first four steps of the sequential evaluation process; and 2) its
failure to deal with the harmless error doctrine. As to the burden of proof, Plaintiff bears the
burden in the first four steps of the analysis of demonstrating how his impairments, whether
individually or in combination, amount to a qualifying disability. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S.
137, 146 n.5 (1987).
As to the harmless error doctrine, the Supreme Court explained its operation in a similar
procedural context in Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409 (2009), which concerned review of
a governmental agency determination. The Court stated: “the burden of showing that an error is
harmful normally falls upon the party attacking the agency's determination.” Id. In such a case,
“the claimant has the ‘burden’ of showing that an error was harmful.” Id. at 410.
Plaintiff thus bears the burden, on appeal, of showing not merely that the Commissioner
erred, but also that the error was harmful. At the first four steps, this requires that Plaintiff also
show that, but for the error, he might have proven his disability. In other words, when appealing
a decision at the first four steps, if Plaintiff cannot articulate the basis for a decision in his favor,
based on the existing record, he is quite unlikely to show that an error was harmful.
The portion of the ALJ’s decision dealing with the step four residual functional capacity
determination prior to May 27, 2010, is brief, but makes the following points: 1) the claimant’s
subjective statements about symptoms are not credible to the extent that they are inconsistent
with the residual functional capacity assessment; 2) before the onset of prostate cancer in May of
2010, there are “little medical records to support substantial physical limitations;” and 3) there
are no medical opinions of disability prior to the onset of prostate cancer. (Tr. 23.)
Plaintiff’s brief attacks the ALJ’s decision, but mounts no substantial challenge to the
ALJ’s second and third points. Plaintiff does not point to any medical records from that period
that support substantial physical limitations, nor medical opinions of disability. Plaintiff has not
pointed to any objective medical evidence that, he contends, the ALJ overlooked.
The Third Circuit requires that “subjective complaints must be substantiated by medical
evidence.” Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1186 (3d Cir. 1992). This is based on a clear
An individual's statement as to pain or other symptoms shall not alone be
conclusive evidence of disability as defined in this section; there must be medical
signs and findings, established by medically acceptable clinical or laboratory
diagnostic techniques, which show the existence of a medical impairment that
results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which
could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged and
which, when considered with all evidence required to be furnished under this
paragraph (including statements of the individual or his physician as to the
intensity and persistence of such pain or other symptoms which may reasonably
be accepted as consistent with the medical signs and findings), would lead to a
conclusion that the individual is under a disability.
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A). The ALJ made clear that, to the extent that they were inconsistent
with the residual functional capacity determination, Plaintiff’s subjective complaints were not
supported by medical evidence. Plaintiff has not pointed to any medical evidence that indicates
that the ALJ erred in making this assessment.
Plaintiff bears the burden of showing that the ALJ’s determination is not supported by
substantial evidence. Plaintiff has not done so. This Court has reviewed the ALJ’s decision and
finds that the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff has failed to persuade this Court that the ALJ erred in his decision or that he was
harmed by any errors. This Court finds that the Commissioner’s decision is supported by
substantial evidence and is affirmed.
s/ Stanley R. Chesler
STANLEY R. CHESLER, U.S.D.J.
Dated: December 20, 2016
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