GARCIA-ESTRADA v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
OPINION. Signed by Judge Jose L. Linares on 02/07/2017. (ek)
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
MARIA I. GARCIA-ESTRADA,
: CIVIL ACTION NO. 16-2037 (JLL)
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,:
LINARES, District Judge
Maria T. Garcia-Estrada seeks judicial review of a final decision (hereinafter,
“the Decision”) issued on behalf of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (hereinafter, “the Commissioner”) by an administrative law judge
(hereinafter, “the AU”), dated October 23, 2014, wherein the AU addressed her
application for supplemental security income (hereinafter, “SSI”). (çç dkt. 1; R. at
2 1—33.) See also 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g); L.Civ.R.
The AU concluded that Garcia-Estrada was disabled
entitled to collect SSI
and thus she was
for the time period conimencing on February 2, 2014 when
she turned 50 years old. However, Garcia-Estrada objects to the portion of the
Decision wherein the AU concluded that she was not disabled
not entitled to collect $SI
through February 1, 2014.
and thus she was
for the time period extending from December 1, 2006,
The Court has carefully considered the administrative record, as well as the
submissions that have been made in support of and in opposition to the instant appeal,
and decides this matter on the briefs of the parties and without conducting oral
argument. (See dkt. 7 (administrative record); dkt. 11 (Garcia-Estrada’s brief); dkt.
12 (Commissioner’s brief).) See L.Civ.R. 78.1(b); L.Civ.R. 9.1. For the reasons set
forth below, the Court rernands this matter for further proceedings that are consistent
with this Opinion.
The Court writes for the parties who are familiar with the facts and procedural
history of the case. The Court therefore specifically addresses in the discussion below
only those facts relevant to the issues raised on appeal.
STANDARD Of REVIEW
The Court must affinTi the Decision if the AU’s findings of fact are supported
by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C.
Reefer v. Bamhart, 326 F.3d 376,
379 (3d Cir. 2003); Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000). The Court
must be deferential to the inferences drawn by the ALl from the facts if those
inferences, in turn, are supported by substantial evidence. See Smith v. Califano, 637
F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981); see also Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir.
1999) (stating that a court “will not set the Commissioner’s decision aside if it is
supported by substantial evidence, even if we would have decided the factual inquiry
differently”). “Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion,” and “[i]t 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). Additionally, a disability must be established by
objective medical evidence. To this end, “[a]n individual’s statement as to pain or
other symptoms shall not alone be conclusive evidence of disability as defined in this
section.” 42 U.S.C.
Instead, a finding that one is disabled requires:
[M]edical signs and findings, established by medically acceptable
clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques, which show the existence
of a medical impainnent 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.. would lead to a conclusion that the individual is under a
Id. The factors to consider in determining how to weigh the evidence originating
from medical sources include: (1) the examining relationship; (2) the treatment
relationship, including the length, frequency, nature, and extent of the treatment; (3)
the supportability of the opinion; (4) its consistency with the record as a whole; and
(5) the specialization of the individual giving the opinion. $çç 20 C.F.R.
The “substantial evidence standard is a deferential standard of review.” Jones,
364 F.3d at 503. The AU is required to “set forth the reasons for his decision,” and
not merely make conclusory and unexplained findings. Burnett v. Cornrn’r of Soc.
Sec. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 119 (3d Cir. 2000). But, if the AU’s decision is
adequately explained and supported, then the Court is not “empowered to weigh the
evidence or substitute its conclusions for those of the fact-finder.” McCrea v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 370 F.3d 357, 361 (3d Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). It does not
matter if this Court “acting de novo might have reached a different conclusion.”
Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler, $06 F.2d 1185, 1190—91 (3d Cir. 1986)). Finally, the
ALl is “not require[d]
to use particular language or adhere to a particular format
in conducting [the] analysis,” but the AU must “ensure that there is sufficient
development of the record and explanation of findings to permit meaningful review.”
Jones, 364 F.3d at 505.
THE FIVE STEP PROCESS AND THE AU’S DECISION
A claimant is eligible to collect benefits if, among other things, she
demonstrates that she is disabled based on 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C.
423(d)(1)(A). A person is disabled only if the 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.” 42 U.S.C.
The “five step sequential evaluation for determining whether a claimant is
under a disability, as set forth in 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520” is the following:
In step one, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant
is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a). If a claimant is found to be engaged in substantial
activity, the disability claim will be denied. In step two, the
Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is suffering from
a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant fails
to show that her impairments are “severe,” she is ineligible for
In step three, the Commissioner compares the medical evidence of
the claimant’s impairment to a list of impairments presumed severe
enough to preclude any gainful work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If a
claimant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its equivalent,
the analysis proceeds to steps four and five.
Step four requires the AU to consider whether the claimant retains
the residual functional capacity [(hereinafter, “RFC”)] to perform her
past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). The claimant bears the
burden of demonstrating an inability to return to her past relevant
If the claimant is unable to resume her former occupation, the
evaluation moves to the final step. At this stage, the burden of
production shifts to the Commissioner, who must demonstrate the
claimant is capable of performing other available work in order to
deny a claim of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). The AU must
show there are other jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy which the claimant can perform, consistent with
her medical impairments, age, education, past work experience, and
residual functional capacity. The AU must analyze the cumulative
effect of all the claimant’s impairments in determining whether she is
capable of performing work and is not disabled.
Burnett, 220 f.3d at 118—19 (case citations omitted). “The claimant bears the burden
of proof for steps one, two, and four of this test. The Commissioner bears the burden
of proof for the last step.” Sykes, 228 F.3d at 263. Neither party bears the burden of
proof at step three.
id. at 263 n.2.
The Step Three Analysis
At the second step of the sequential evaluation in this case, the AU concluded
that GarciaEstrada has had eleven severe impairments, including obesity, as of
December 1, 2006. (R. at 23.) However, Garcia-Estrada argues that the AU failed to
meaningfully consider her obesity, either alone or in conjunction with her ten other
severe impairments, in assessing her ability to engage in gainful employment from
December 1, 2006, through February 1, 2014, in the third step.’ The Court is
compelled to agree with Garcia-Estrada’s argument here.
The Decision set forth in a cursory manner
and without any analysis in
that the AU “has taken into account the combined effect of [Garcia
Estrada’s] obesity” with two other severe impairments suffered by Garcia-Estrada,
and that the AU “assessed the cumulative effect of the claimant’s obesity in
determining her residual functional capacity at other steps of the sequential evaluation
process.” (R. at 24.) Furthermore, the ALl made no mention of Social Security
Ruling 02-ip, which is designed to provide guidance to ALJs
required to consult
and which ALJs are
when they assess the effect of a severe obesity impairment
upon the plaintiffs ability to work. See Cooper v. Cornm’r of Soc. Sec., 268
At the hearing conducted on July 23, 2014, which underlies the AU’s
Decision, Garcia-Estrada testified that she was 5 feet and 2 inches tall, and that she
weighed 19$ pounds. (R. at 43.)
Fed.Appx. 152, 156 (3d Cir. 2008) (stating that an AU should consult and refer to
Social Security Ruling
02-ip when a plaintiff makes a specific request for
consideration of obesity in conjunction with other impainnents). The analysis
provided by the AU in this instance is insufficient, because there is no further
mention of Garcia-Estrada’s obesity in the Decision.
Having concluded that Garcia-Estrada’s obesity was indeed a severe
impairment, the AU should have provided more than the cursory analysis on that
issue in the third step, and should have made some assessment of the severe obesity
impairment in the subsequent analysis. See Halsey v. Cornm’r of Soc. Sec., No. 156311, 2016 WU 6304444, at *5 (D.N.J. Oct. 25, 2016) (remanding a Social Security
matter because the AU set forth in the Decision that the plaintiffs obesity was
considered, but then the AU failed to discuss whether the plaintiffs obesity affected
the plaintiff adversely); Thomas v. Colvin, No. 15-3288, 2016 WU 676372, at *4
(D.N.J. Feb. 16, 2016) (remanding a Social Security matter because the AU found the
plaintiffs obesity to be a severe impairment in the second step, but then failed to
provide deeper analysis of obesity in the third step, and then compounded the error in
the RFC section of the Decision by merely citing to
and then failing to discuss
the opinion of a consultative examining physician that considered the impact of the
“[Ajn AU must meaningfully consider the effect of a claimant’s obesity,
individually and in combination with her impainnents, on her workplace function at
step three and at every subsequent step.” Diaz v. Cornm’r of Soc. Sec., 577 F.3d 500,
504 (3d Cir. 2009). In Diaz, the Third Circuit reversed a district court and directed
that a Social Security matter be remanded for further proceedings, and went on to
hold that “absent analysis of the cumulative impact of [a plaintiffs] obesity and other
impairments on her functional capabilities, we are at a loss in our reviewing
function.” Id. & n.3 (collecting cases reaching a similar conclusion).
In view of the Third Circuit’s clear guidance set forth in Diaz, this Court
remands this matter for a fuller assessment of Garcia-Estrada’s obesity on its own and
in conjunction with the other severe impairments found by the AU. CL Mason v.
Colvin, No. 15-1861, 2015 WL 6739108, at *4 (D.N.J. Nov. 3, 2015) (affirming an
AU’s assessment of the plaintiffs obesity in combination with the plaintiffs other
severe impairments, because the AU fully explained how obesity could impact the
other impairments and thereby provided a sufficient discussion to enable meaningful
judicial review); 0111ev. Comrn’r of Soc. Sec., No. 13-3297, 2014 WL 1272180, at
*5_7 (D.N.J. Mar. 26, 2014) (affirming an AU’s assessment of the plaintiffs obesity
in combination with the plaintiffs other impairments, because the AU explicitly
provided several examples from the record that demonstrated that the plaintiffs
obesity did not prevent the performance of light work). On remand, the AU “should
consider [Garcia-Estrada’s] physical and psychological ailments
regard to [her] obesity.” Cooper, 268 Fed.Appx. at 156.
The RFC Analysis
Garcia-Estrada also argues that the AU’s failure to properly analyze her
obesity necessarily led to improper conclusions concerning her RFC that existed from
December 1, 2006 through February 1, 2014. The Court is compelled to agree with
this argument as well. See Ward v. Cormn’r of Soc. Sec., No. 13-763, 2015 WL
5823061, at *5_6 (D.N.J. Oct. 1, 2015) (remanding a Social Security matter based on
the AU’s deficient analysis of the plaintiffs obesity in the RFC portion of the
Decision, which as a result evaded meaningful judicial review); Standowsld v. Colvin,
No. 13-5663, 2015 WL 404659, at *12_13 (D.N.J. Jan. 29, 2015) (remanding a Social
Security matter because the AU “barely discussed” the plaintiffs severe impairment
of obesity, and “the AU’s residual functional capacity determination is silent on
obesity”); cf Gifford v. Bamhart, 129 Fed.Appx. 704, 707 (3d Cir. 2005) (affinning
the AU’s decision to deny an application for benefits because, among other things,
the AU considered the plaintiffs obesity in combination with her other impairments
and concluded that the plaintiffs obesity did not eliminate the residual functional
capacity based on the medical evidence offered). On remand, the AU should be
certain to specifically address Garcia-Estrada’s severe obesity impainrient when
assessing her RFC.
Because the Court has determined that a remand is appropriate based upon the
AU’s improper assessment of Garcia-Estrada’s obesity impairment, a new sequential
evaluation concerning whether she is disabled is necessary. Thus, the Court will not
address Garcia-Estrada’s remaining challenges, because they should necessarily be
addressed upon remand. See Lawrence v. Colvin, No. 15-285 1, 2016 WL 1644622,
at *10 (D.N.J. Apr. 26, 2016).
For the foregoing reasons, the Court rernands the matter for ftuther
proceedings that are consistent with this Opinion. The Court will issue an appropriate
States District Judge
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?