SANTIAGO v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
OPINION. Signed by Judge Claire C. Cecchi on 9/25/17. (DD, )
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
MYRNA L. SANTIAGO,
Civil Action No.: 2:16-cv-4$74 (CCC)
COMMISSIONER Of SOCIAL SECURITY,
CECCHI, District Judge.
Before the Court is Plaintiff Myrna L. Santiago’s (“Plaintiff’) appeal seeking review of a
(“Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under
§ 216(1) and 226(d) of the Social Security Act (“S$A”). 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 vacated and the matter is
remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.
Plaintiff applied for DIB on June 2$, 2012, alleging disability as of June 14, 2011. Tr.’ at
The applications were denied initially on May 23, 2013, and upon reconsideration on
September 12, 2013. Id. A hearing was held before AU Dennis O’Leary on March 23, 2015.
“Tr.” refers to the certified record of the administrative proceedings. ECF No. 5.
AU O’Leary issued a decision on May 13, 2015, finding Plaintiff was not disabled, as
defined by the SSA. Id. at 40 (citing 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(g)). Plaintiff requested review of the
decision and the Appeals Council denied the request on June 8, 2016. Tr. at 1. On August 10,
2016, Plaintiff instituted this action. ECF No. 1.
Plaintiff was born on June 20, 1963. Tr. at 53. Plaintiff has a high school education and
completed one year of college in Puerto Rico. Id. at 39, 53. Plaintiff obtained her commercial
driver’s license and took classes to be a dental assistant. Id. at 53. Plaintiff alleges she is unable
to communicate in English. Id. Plaintiff testified that in the past, she worked in an office
reviewing medical plans and as a truck driver. Id. at 55-56.
On a daily basis, Plaitniff testified she is able to cook and clean around the house, but
more slowly than she was capable of before. Id. at 62-63. She stated that during the week she
tends to stay home except to go to appointments, and on the weekends she and her husband
occasionally visit family in Massachusets. Id. at 63.
Plaintiff testified she is unable to work due to a condition in her bones and joints that
causes her to feel pain. Id. at 57. Plaintiff stated that she cannot sit or stand for more than one
hour at a time or her joints get stiff and it becomes difficult to move. Id. Plaintiff stated she has
been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromalagia. Id. at 58. Plaintiff testified that she
has a list of medications that she takes and receives physical therapy and injections for tendonitis
in her shoulder. Id. at 59. Plaintiff stated that she has shortness of breath and sleeps with a
CPAP machine to help her breathe at night. Id. at 60. Plaintiff also stated that she is under the
care of a psychiatrist for depression. Id. at 62.
Standard of Review
This Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner’s decision under 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g) and 1383(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 of Soc. Sec., 667 f.3d 356, 359 (3d Cir. 2011); see also 42 U.S.C.
Nevertheless, 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) (citingHartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999)).
Pursuant to the $$A, in order to be eligible for benefits, a plaintiff must show she is
disabled by demonstrating an inability to “engage in any substantial gainflul 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.” 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(d)(l)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). Taking into account the plaintiffs
age, education, and work experience, disability will be evaluated by the plaintiffs ability to
engage in her previous work or any other form of substantial gainful activity existing in the
national economy. 42 u.s.c.
§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). A person is disabled for these
purposes only if her physical or mental impairments are “of such severity that [s]he is not only
unable to do [her] previous work, but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work
experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national
Decisions regarding disability will be made individually and will be “based on evidence
adduced at a hearing.” Sykes v. Apftl, 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.”
§ 423(d)(3), 1382(a)(3)(D).
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.
404.1520, 416.920. first, the AU must determine whether the plaintiff is currently engaged in
gainful activity. Sykes, 22$ F.3d at 262. Second, if she is not, the AU determines whether the
Plaintiff has an impairment that limits her ability to work.
Third, if she 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. Id. If the impairment is not in the Listings, the ALl must determine
how much residual functional capacity (“RFC”) the applicant retains in spite of her impairment.
Id. at 263. Fourth, the AU must consider whether the plaintiff’s RFC is enough to perform her
past relevant work. Id. Fifth, if her 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, 22$ 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 alleged onset date. Tr. at 35. At
steps two and three, the AU found Plaintiff’s impairments of depression and somatic spine
problems 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 35-36.
The AU concluded Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a
full range of work at all exertional levels with the exceptions that Plaitniff may not lift overhead
bilaterally, work at heights or around heavy machinery, can perform simple and repetitive tasks,
and must alternate sitting and standing as needed at one-hour intervals. Id. at 37. To make this
conclusion, the AU
considered all of Plaintiff’s symptoms and their consistency with the
Specifically, the ALl considered Plaintiffs testimony that she was able to
complete her daily activities, albiet more slowly than in the past. Id. at 38. The AU also
considered the reports of an orthopedic consultative examiner, an internal medicine consultative
examiner, a psychological consultative examiner, and the Disability Determination Services
(“DDS”) medical consultants. Id. at 38-39.
At step four, the AU found Plaintiff was incapable of performing past relevant work as a
dental assistant. Id. at 39. At step five, the AU found there were jobs in significant numbers in
the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. Id. The AU identified these jobs as: kitchen
helper, photocopier, and final assembler. Id. at 40.
Plaintiff makes the following arguments in support of her contention that the AU’s
decision should be remanded: (1) the RFC is contradictory and not supported by substantial
evidence, and (2) the hypothetical questions posed to the vocational expert (“yE”) did not reflect
all of Plaintiffs impairments, and thus the VE’s answers cannot constitute substantial evidence.
The AU’s RFC Analysis Precludes Meaningful Review
Plaintiff argues the RFC “contradicts itself and the evidence” and that the AU substitutes
his own observations for uncontradicted medical findings. Plaintiffs Brief (“P1. Br.”) ECF No.
10 at 17. “In evaluating medical reports, the ALl is free to choose the medical opinion of one
doctor over that of another.” Diaz v. Comm ‘r of Soc. Sec., 577 F.3d 500, 505 (3d Cir. 2009)
(citing Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981)). “When a conflict in the evidence
exists, the ALl may choose whom to credit but cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the
wrong reason. The AU must consider all the evidence and give some reason for discounting the
evidence she rejects.” Plummet v. Apfel, 186 f.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999) (internal citation
In this case, the AU found Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a thU range of work at all
exertional levels with limited exceptions.
The physical exertional levels include: sedentary,
light, medium, heavy, or very heavy work. 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.967 (2002). The ALl, therefore,
fbund Plaintiff was capable of performing all levels of work, including heavy and very heavy
work. Pursuant to 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.967, these exertional limitations require that Plaintiff be able
to lift up to 100 pounds and frequentLy lift and carry objects weighing fifty pounds. However,
the AU indicated that he found Plaintiff does have some physical
Most importantly, at step two, the AU
Tr. at 35.
found Plaintiff had “somatic spine
Further, the AU also states Plaintiff: has “obesity and the usual
complications therefrom”; had an injection into her left shoulder for tendonitis; when she climbs
a flight of stairs, she gets shortness of breath; and “she is slowing down as she gets old.” Ic!. at
gave “some weight” to Dr. Allen S. Glushakow ai;d the psychological
consultative examiner who both found Plaintiff had a history of back pain. Id. at 39.
also gave “considerable weight” to the DDS medical consultants who opined that Plaintiff can
perform light work. Id.
While “the AU is free to choose the medical opinion of one doctor over that of another.”
Diaz, 577 F.3d at 505, the AU must “give some reason for discounting the evidence she rejects.”
Plummet, 186 F.3d at 429. Here, it appears the AU relies upon Plaintiffs full range of activities
of daily living and the report of Dr. Glushakow which found, inter alia, that Plaintiff had full
range of motion to find that Plaintiff was not disabled. However, it is unclear from the decision
how the AU came to the conclusion that Plaintiff can perform a full range of work at all
Plaintiff suggests that the AU intended to find Plaintiff had “somosomatic” spine problems,
which would indicate a mental impairment, rather than a physical one. P1. Br. at 10. The Court
declines to make such an assumption.
exertional levels, despite his findings that she does in fact have some physical impairments.
Accordingly, the Court cannot provide meaningful review of the RFC. On remand, the AU
should fully develop the record and sufficiently explain the reasons for the exertional level of
work he finds Plaintiff is capable of perfbnning.3
Questions to the VE
Plaintiff argues the yE’s testimony cannot constitute substantial evidence because the
questions posed did not properly convey Plaintiffs impairments. P1. Br. at 27. As the Court
remands to allow the AU to fully develop the record as to Plaintiffs RFC, on remand, the AU
should also be sure to include Plaintiffs credibly established impairments in the hypothetical
questions posed to the yE.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court vacates the ALl’ s decision and remands this case for
further administrative proceedings consistent with this Opinion.
An appropriate order
accompanies this Opinion.
CLAIRE C. CECCHI, U.S.D.J.
Plaintiff also appears to argue the AU improperly discounted the psychological consultative
examiner’s diagnosis of “recurrent major depression.” P1. Br. at 25. The Court finds this
argument to be without merit, as ALl found at step two that Plaintiff has a severe impairment of
depression. Tr. at 35. However, to the extent Plaintiff argues the AU “invented” a federal
statute which requires a person to be fluent in English to be issued a commercial driver’s license,
on remand, the AU should identify the statute to which he refers.
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