United States District Court, D. Maryland
April Vincent o/b/o J.S.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;
February 17, 2017, April Vincent 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 daughter, J.S.
[ECF No. 1]. I have considered the parties' cross-motions
for summary judgment, and Plaintiff's reply. [ECF Nos.
18, 19, 20]. 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1996) (superseded by statute on other grounds); Coffman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. Vincent's motion. This letter explains my rationale.
Vincent protectively filed for Children's SSI on behalf
of J.S. on October 3, 2012, alleging a disability onset date
of January 1, 2010. (Tr. 132-37). Her claim was denied
initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 43-50, 52-60). A
hearing was held on May 15, 2015, before an Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 14-42). Following the
hearing, on July 1, 2015, the ALJ issued an opinion denying
benefits. (Tr. 65-79). Because the Appeals Council denied Ms.
Vincent's request for review, (Tr. 1-6), the ALJ's
decision is the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.
evaluated Ms. Vincent'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. Vincent's claim. At step
one, the ALJ found that J.S. had not engaged in any
substantial gainful activity since the application date. (Tr.
68). At step two, the ALJ found that J.S. suffered from the
severe impairment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
(ADHD). Id. At step three, however, the ALJ found
that J.S. did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that met any listing. (Tr. 68-69). Additionally,
the ALJ determined that J.S. did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that would be functionally
equivalent to any listing. (Tr. 69-78). Therefore,
the ALJ determined that J.S. was not disabled for purposes of
Children's SSI benefits. (Tr. 79).
Vincent asserts two primary arguments in support of her
appeal: (1) that the ALJ should have ruled that J.S.'s
mild mental retardation was a severe impairment; and (2) that
the ALJ should have found J.S. to have a marked limitation in
the functional domain of attending and completing tasks. I
Ms. Vincent argues that the ALJ erred by failing to classify
J.S.'s diagnosis of mild mental retardation 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 Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 138
(1987) (upholding the severity threshold because, “[i]f
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 J.S. to suffer from the severe impairment of
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). (Tr. 68).
The ALJ did not discuss any other diagnoses or impairments
within the step two section of the opinion. However,
elsewhere in the opinion, the ALJ explained her reason for
essentially discounting the diagnosis of mental retardation.
Specifically, the ALJ stated that Dr. Weinstock, who made the
diagnosis, “noted that the claimant's difficulties
were attributed to low energy, lack of motivation and
interest, poor habits and a lack of support at home”
and “noted that[, ] given what he observed at the
consultative examination, it is hard to be definitive about
the nature of the claimant's difficulties.”
Id. The ALJ further described how “a
psychological evaluation report in February 2011 found the
claimant to have a full scale IQ score of 92, which indicate
[sic] average of functioning.” (Tr. 69). Subsequently,
the ALJ concluded: “While there is evidence of academic
functioning below grade level, there is also evidence of a
full scale IQ score within the average range.” (Tr.
70). Thus, the “diagnosis” made by Dr. Weinstock,
according to the ALJ, did not seem to be definitive or
supported by other evidence.
even if the ALJ's failure to discuss the mild mental
retardation diagnosis at Step Two were error, Ms. Vincent has
failed to show how she was prejudiced by the ALJ's
failure. As noted above, the ALJ determined that J.S.
suffered from another severe impairment, ADHD, and continued
through the entire sequential evaluation of the allegation of
disability. Moreover, in assessing whether J.S.'s
impairments were equivalent to a listing, the ALJ discussed
the diagnosis of mild mental retardation and considered all
of J.S.'s limitations in each relevant functional area,
whether due to ADHD or intellectual limitation. (Tr. 68-78);
see, e.g., (Tr. 74) (discussing, later in the
opinion, that J.S. “has been in special
education” and “is not functioning at grade
level”). Thus, the ALJ properly considered all of
J.S.'s impairments, whether severe or non-severe, at the
relevant stages of the sequential evaluation. Any step two
error is therefore harmless.
Vincent's second argument cites the ALJ's failure to
find a marked limitation in the area of attending and
completing tasks. The relevant commentary pertaining to that
functional domain reads:
School-age children (age 6 to attainment of age 12). When you
are of school age, you should be able to focus your attention
in a variety of situations in order to follow directions,
remember and organize your school materials, and complete
classroom and homework assignments. You should be able to
concentrate on details and not make careless mistakes in your
work (beyond what would be expected in other children your
age who do not have impairments). You should be able to
change your activities or routines without distracting
yourself or others, and stay on task and in place when
appropriate. You should be able to sustain your attention
well enough to participate in group sports, read by yourself,
and complete family chores. You should also be able to
complete a transition task (e.g., be ready for the school
bus, change clothes after gym, change classrooms) without
extra reminders and accommodation.
20 CFR 416.926a(h)(2)(iv).
assessing J.S.'s abilities, the ALJ noted:
The claimant testified that she washes dishes and sweeps the
hallway. She testified that she needs reminders when
performing chores. Ms. Vincent testified that after school
the claimant does her chores. However, she has to be reminded
to complete certain tasks. As noted above, the claimant has
difficulty with completing her homework. The claimant
testified that she receives help with her homework in school
and at home.
(Tr. 75). Given the import of the evidence cited by the ALJ
(that J.S. is able to perform chores and complete her
homework, if she is provided support and reminders), the
ALJ's conclusion that her impairment is ...