United States District Court, D. Maryland
Ruth Crosen o/b/o C.A. C.
Commissioner of Social Security,
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge
30, 2016, Ruth Crosen petitioned this Court to review the
Social Security Administration's denial of her claim for
Children's Supplemental Security Income ("SSI")
on behalf of her minor son, C.A.C. (ECF No. 1). I have
considered the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment. (ECF Nos. 13, 16). This Court must uphold the
Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial
evidence and if proper legal standards were employed. 42
U.S.C. § 405(g); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585,
589 (4th Cir. 1996) (superseded by statute on other grounds);
Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).
I find that no hearing is necessary. See Local R.
105.6 (D. Md. 2016). I will grant the Commissioner's
motion and deny Ms. Crosen's motion. This letter explains
Crosen applied for Children's SSI on behalf of C.A.C. on
March 8, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of June 15,
2007. (Tr. 152-56). Her claim was denied initially and on
reconsideration. (Tr. 107-10, 114-15). A hearing was held on
January 8, 2015, before an Administrative Law Judge
("ALJ"). (Tr. 57-95). Following the hearing, on
February 6, 2015, the ALJ issued an opinion denying benefits.
(Tr. 34-56). Because the Appeals Council denied Ms.
Crosen's request for review, (Tr. 1-6), the ALJ's
decision is the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.
evaluated Ms. Crosen's claim using the three-step
sequential process for claims involving childhood SSI, as set
forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. The ALJ's findings at
steps one and two favored Ms. Crosen's claim. At step
one, the ALJ found that C.A.C. had not engaged in any
substantial gainful activity since the application date. (Tr.
40). At step two, the ALJ found that C.A.C. suffered from the
severe impairments of "Attention Deficit Hyperactivity
Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD),
Borderline Intellectual Functioning (BIF), status post
language delay." Id. At step three, however,
the ALJ found that C.A.C. did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that met any listing. (Tr. 40-50).
Additionally, the ALJ determined that C.A.C. did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that would be
functionally equivalent to any listing. Id.
Therefore, the ALJ determined that C.A.C. was not disabled
for purposes of Children's SSI benefits. (Tr. 50).
Crosen asserts two primary arguments in support of her
appeal: (1) that the ALJ should have ruled that C.A.C.'s
autism spectrum disorder was a severe impairment; and (2)
that the ALJ should have given greater weight to the opinions
and medical records of the treating physicians. Although I
agree that the ALJ committed error in considering
C.A.C.'s autism spectrum disorder, I conclude that the
error was harmless, and therefore, that the ALJ's
conclusion should be affirmed.
Ms. Crosen argues that the ALJ erred by failing to classify
C.A.C.'s placement on the autism spectrum disorder as a
severe impairment at step two of the sequential evaluation.
Step two involves a threshold determination of whether a
claimant is suffering from a severe impairment or combination
of impairments. See Bow en v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137,
138 (1987) (upholding the severity threshold because,
"if a claimant is unable to show that he has a medically
severe impairment...there is no reason for the Secretary to
consider [the claimant's] age, education, and work
experience"). If a claimant is not suffering from any
severe impairment(s), he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)(4)(ii). If a claimant is found to be suffering
from a severe impairment(s), the analysis simply proceeds to
the next step. Id.
the ALJ found C.A.C. to suffer from several severe
impairments. However, the ALJ also stated:
All other impairments alleged or found in the record
including Autistic Spectrum Disorder are nonsevere
impairments because they have not lasted for a period of 12
months, are responsive to medication, do not require any
significant medical treatment, or do not result in any
continuous exertional, or nonexertional limitations.
(Tr. 40). That analysis is patently erroneous because it is
conclusory and contains no actual evaluation of the ALJ's
reasons for finding Autistic Spectrum Disorder nonsevere. A
simple recitation of all of the potential reasons an
impairment might be nonsevere does not fulfill the ALJ's
duty of explanation as to a particular impairment. However,
despite the error, Ms. Crosen has failed to show how she was
prejudiced by the ALJ's failure. As noted above, the ALJ
determined that C.A.C. suffered from other severe
impairments, and continued through the entire sequential
evaluation of the allegation of disability. Moreover, in
assessing whether C.A.C.'s impairments were equivalent to
a listing, the ALJ discussed the diagnosis of autism and
considered all of C.A.C.'s limitations in each relevant
functional area, whether due to autism or another diagnosis.
(Tr. 43, 44-50). Thus, the ALJ properly considered all of
C.A.C.'s impairments, whether severe or non-severe, at
the relevant stages of the evaluation. Any error is therefore
Crosen's second argument cites the ALJ's failure to
make express assignments of weight to the opinions of two of
C.A.C.'s treating physicians, Drs. Heffner and Peay. PI.
Mot. 6- 9. The relevant regulation provides, "Medical
opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or
other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about
the nature and severity of your impairments), including your
symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what you can still do
despite impairment(s), and your physical or mental
restrictions." 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(a). A treating
physician's opinion merits controlling weight when two
conditions are met: 1) it is well-supported by medically
acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques; and
2) it is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in
the record. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2);
Craig, 76 F.3d at 585 (refined by 20 C.F.R. §
416.927(d)(2) (1999)); SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188.
there are records from two physicians that Ms. Crosen argues
constitute "opinions." First, the record contains a
report from an evaluating physician, Dr. Heffner; and,
second, it contains two letters from C.A.C.'s
psychiatrist, Dr. Peay. (Tr. 462-67, 334, 337). Dr.
Heffner's report diagnosed C.A.C. with "Autistic
Spectrum Disorder" and ADFID, and made recommendations
regarding medication and therapy. (Tr. 465-467). Dr. Heffner
noted "significant interactional and behavioral problems
which are over and above that of [ADHD] and do not truly meet
the criteria for Mood Disorder." (Tr. 465). Similarly,
Dr. Peay's letters summarize C.A.C.'s diagnoses and
the services he receives at school. (Tr. 334, 337). Dr. Peay
states that C.A.C. has "significant impairment in his
social development" and that he will "continue to
require some higher level of clinical and educational
services throughout his life." (Tr. 337). Dr. Peay also
noted a need for "increased supervision given safety
concerns with his hyperactivity and impulsivity." (Tr.
334). Neither the report from Dr. Heffner nor the letters
from Dr. Peay address the issues relevant to an evaluation of
C.A.C.'s disability under the relevant standards. For
example, the physicians' reports do not address the six
relevant functional areas to assist the ALJ's
determination of the appropriate level of limitation in each
area. In addition, the ALJ reviewed, summarized, and
discussed the findings by both physicians. (Tr. 42, 43).
Given that the physicians' reports do not contain actual
"opinions" regarding the functional requirements
for disability, the fact that the ALJ did not make express
assignments of weight to those documents is not fatal to the
my review of the ALJ's decision is confined to whether
substantial evidence, in the record as it was reviewed by the
ALJ, supports the decision and whether correct legal
standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 390, 404 (1971). Even if there is other
evidence that may support Ms. Crosen's position, I am not
permitted to reweigh the evidence or to substitute my own
judgment for that of the ALJ. See Hays v. Sullivan,
907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). In considering the
entire record, I find that the ALJ's RFC determination
was supported by substantial evidence. The ALJ cited to
C.A.C.'s improvement with medication and therapy, his
scoring on standardized testing, and his ability to complete
academic goals in a small group setting with adult
assistance. (Tr. 43-44). The ALJ further relied upon the
opinions of the State agency consultant, who had found less
than marked limitations or no limitations in all functional
areas, except that the ALJ determined that C.A.C. had a less
than marked limitation (instead of no limitation) in
"Moving about and Manipulating Objects." (Tr. 44).
Ms. Crosen cites to a list of excerpts from records that she
believes support a finding of disability. PI. Mot. 7-9.
However, in light of the substantial evidence cited by the
ALJ, remand is unwarranted even if other evidence exists that
could be marshaled in support of a finding of disability.
for the reasons given, this Court GRANTS the
Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16)
and DENIES Ms. Crosen's Motion for Summary Judgment ...