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Juana T. ex rel. A.L. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

March 22, 2019

JUANA T. ex rel. A.L., a minor, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.[1]

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Thomas M. DiGirolamo United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Juana T. on behalf of her minor son (“A.L.”) seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or the “Commissioner”) denying her child's application for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 21) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 24).[2] Plaintiff contends that the administrative record does not contain substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision that A.L. is not disabled. No. hearing is necessary. L.R. 105.6. For the reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 24) is GRANTED, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 21) is DENIED, and the Commissioner's final decision is AFFIRMED.

         I

         Background

         On January 21, 2016, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Francine L. Applewhite held a hearing where Plaintiff and A.L. testified. R. at 171-219. The ALJ thereafter found on February 23, 2016, that A.L. was not disabled since the application date of April 2, 2013. R. at 146-70. In so finding, the ALJ found that A.L., who was born in November 2007, (1) had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date of April 2, 2013; and (2) had the severe impairments of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and adjustment disorder; but (3) did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments meeting, medically equaling, or functionally equaling one of the impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. R. at 152-64. The ALJ found that A.L.'s impairments did not functionally equal a listed impairment because he did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that resulted in either “marked” limitations in two out of six domains of functioning or “extreme” limitation in one domain of functioning. R. at 153-64. Rather, the ALJ found that he had less than marked limitations in acquiring and using information and in attending and completing tasks. R. at 156-59. The ALJ also found that A.L. had no limitations in interacting and relating with others, in moving about and manipulating objects, in the ability to care for himself, and in health and physical well-being. R. at 159-64. In so finding, the ALJ gave “significant weight” to the opinions of the state agency consultants. R. at 156.

         After the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Plaintiff filed on August 15, 2017, a complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. Upon the parties' consent, this case was transferred to a United States Magistrate Judge for final disposition and entry of judgment. The case then was reassigned to the undersigned. The parties have briefed the issues, and the matter is now fully submitted.

         II

         Disability Determinations and Burden of Proof

         An individual under the age of 18 shall be considered disabled “if that individual has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i); see 20 C.F.R. § 416.906. To determine whether a child has a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the Commissioner follows a three-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924, 416.926a. The first step is a determination whether the child is engaged in substantial gainful activity. Id. § 416.924(b). If so, benefits are denied; if not, the evaluation continues to the next step. The second step involves a determination whether a claimant's impairment or combination of impairments is severe, i.e., more than a slight abnormality that causes no more than minimal functional limitations. Id. § 416.924(c). If not, benefits are denied; if so, the evaluation continues. The third step involves a determination whether the child has an impairment or impairments that meet, medically equal, or functionally equal in severity a listed impairment. Id. § 416.924(d). If so, and if the duration requirement is met, benefits are awarded; if not, benefits are denied.

         “A child's functioning is determined by looking at six broad areas, or ‘domains,' in an attempt to evaluate ‘all of what a child can or cannot do.'” Woodhouse ex rel. Taylor v. Astrue, 696 F.Supp.2d 521, 527 (D. Md. 2010) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1)). In the domain of “acquiring and using information, ” the Commissioner considers how well a child acquires or learns information, and how well the child uses the learned information. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(g). In the domain of “attending and completing tasks, ” the Commissioner considers how well a child is able to focus and maintain attention and how well the child begins, carries through, and finishes activities. Id. § 416.926a(h). In the domain of “interacting and relating with others, ” the Commissioner considers how well a child initiates and sustains emotional connections with others, develops and uses the language of the child's community, cooperates with others, complies with rules, responds to criticism, and respects and takes care of others' possessions. Id. § 416.926a(i). In the domain of “moving about and manipulating objects, ” relating to a child's gross and fine motor skills, the Commissioner considers how the child moves his or her body from one place to another and how the child moves and manipulates things. Id. § 416.926a(j). In the domain of “caring for yourself, ” the Commissioner considers how well a child maintains a healthy emotional and physical state, including how well the child gets his or her physical and emotional wants and needs met in appropriate ways, how the child copes with stress and changes in the environment, and whether the child takes care of his or her own health, possessions, and living area.. Id. § 416.926a(k).

         Impairments “functionally equal listing-level severity when they produce an ‘extreme' limitation in a child applicant's functioning in one domain or ‘marked' limitations in functioning in two domains.” Woodhouse, 696 F.Supp.2d at 527 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(d)). A “marked” limitation in a domain is one that “interferes seriously with [the claimant's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i). “It is the equivalent of the functioning [the Commissioner] would expect to find on standardized testing with scores that are at least two, but less than three, standard deviations below the mean.” Id. An “extreme” limitation in a domain is one that “interferes very seriously with [the claimant's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities.” Id. § 416.926a(e)(3)(i). “It is the equivalent of the functioning [the Commissioner] would expect to find on standardized testing with scores that are at least three standard deviations below the mean.” Id.

         III

         Substantial Evidence Standard

         The Court reviews an ALJ's decision to determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. See Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). In other words, the issue before the Court “is not whether [Plaintiff] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [Plaintiff] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law.” Id. The Court's review is deferential, as “[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Under this standard, substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but is enough that a ...


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