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Dae'marin J. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 30, 2019

Dae'marin J.
v.
Commissioner of Social Security,

         Dear Counsel:

         On June 6, 2018, Plaintiff petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's (“SSA's”) denial of his claims for Children's Supplemental Security Income (“Children's SSI”) and adult SSI. ECF 1. I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, and Plaintiff's reply. ECF 16, 18, 21. This Court must uphold the SSA's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and if proper legal standards were employed. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). I find that no hearing is necessary. See Local R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). I will grant the SSA's motion and deny Plaintiff's motion. This letter explains my rationale.

         Plaintiff's mother filed an application for Children's SSI on his behalf on August 27, 2013, while Plaintiff was a minor. Tr. 295-303. The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 118-21, 130-31. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on the claim on May 23, 2017, roughly five months after Plaintiff attained age 18. Tr. 39-97. Following the hearing, on June 21, 2017, the ALJ issued an opinion denying both Children's SSI and adult SSI benefits. Tr. 12-33. Because the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. 1-5, the ALJ's decision is the final, reviewable decision of the SSA.

         The ALJ first evaluated Plaintiff's claim using the three-step sequential process for claims involving Children's SSI, as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. First, the ALJ determines whether the child has engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924(a), (b). If the child has not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the ALJ proceeds to step two and determines whether the child has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. §§ 416.924(a), (c). At step two “[i]f [the child] do[es] not have a medically determinable impairment, or [the] impairment(s) is a slight abnormality or combination of slight abnormalities that causes no more than minimal functional limitations, ” then the ALJ will determine that the child is not disabled. § 416.924(c). However, if the ALJ determines that the child has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, then the ALJ proceeds to step three of the evaluation to determine whether the child's impairment or combination of impairments meets, medically equals, or functionally equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “listings”). 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d).

         A claimant meets a listing when he has “a medically determinable impairment(s) that satisfies all of the criteria of the listing. 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(d). An ALJ may determine that the impairment(s) medically equals a listed impairment if: (1) there are other findings related to the child's impairment, not included in the listing requirements, that are at least of equal medical significance to the required criteria; (2) the child has an impairment not described in the listings with findings that are at least of equal medical significance as a closely analogous listed impairment; or (3) if the child has a combination of impairments, none of which meets a listing, but which result in findings that are at least of equal medical significance as a closely analogous listed impairment. § 416.926(b).

         If an impairment(s) neither meets nor equals a listing, an ALJ may determine that the child's impairment(s) is functionally equivalent to a listed impairment. § 416.926a. The ALJ must evaluate the “whole child” when making a finding regarding functional equivalence. SSR 09-1p, 2009 WL 396031 (S.S.A. Feb. 17, 2009). Generally, the ALJ must first consider how the child functions daily in all settings, as compared to children of the same age who do not have the impairments. Id. at *2. In other words, the ALJ considers the child's activities including everything a child does at home, at school, and in the community on a daily basis. Id. Next, the ALJ must assess the child's capacity to perform or not perform activities, and must assign each activity to any or all of the six domains or broad areas of functioning. Id. at *3. The six domains are (i) acquiring and using information, (ii) attending and completing tasks, (iii) interacting and relating with others, (iv) moving about and manipulating objects, (v) caring for yourself, and (vi) health and physical well-being. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1). An impairment functionally equals the listings if it is determined that a claimant has marked limitations in two domains, or an extreme limitation in one domain. § 416.926a(d).

         The ALJ proceeded in accordance with applicable law at all three steps of the evaluation. The ALJ's findings at steps one and two favored Plaintiff's claim. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity at any time relevant to the application. Tr. 16. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of “learning disorder with impairment in math, major depressive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), and personality disorder.” Tr. 17. At step three, however, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any listing. Tr. 17-18. The ALJ specifically considered Listing 112.05 for intellectual disorders, Listing 112.04 for depressive, bipolar, and related disorders, Listing 112.08 for personality and impulse-control disorders, and Listing 112.11 for neurodevelopmental disorders, and expressly indicated the criteria she found to be absent. Tr. 17-18.

         The ALJ then proceeded to determine whether Plaintiff's impairments functionally equaled the listings. The ALJ first evaluated the “whole child” in making findings regarding functional equivalence. In doing so, the ALJ reviewed the testimony of Plaintiff and his mother. Tr. 18-19. The ALJ also conducted a review of Plaintiff's limited medical records from the relevant time frame, consisting mostly of one-time (or, for one provider, two-time) consultative examinations. Tr. 19-21.

         Finally, the ALJ assigned weight to the opinions of various educational and medical sources. The ALJ assigned “some weight” to the somewhat inconsistent questionnaires completed by Plaintiff's teachers, crediting the overall reflection of “borderline intellectual functioning and poor academic performance.” Tr. 22. The ALJ further assigned “partial weight” to the opinions rendered by two non-examining State agency consultants, because the ALJ believed Plaintiff to have greater limitations in the domain of acquiring and using information. Tr. 21. The ALJ assigned “little weight” to the opinions of a consultative examiner, Dr. Kenneth Fligsten, and “partial weight” to the opinion of another consultative examiner, Dr. Donald Davis. Tr. 21-22. The ALJ also reviewed the various GAF scores in the medical record. Tr. 22-23. Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had: (i) marked limitation in acquiring and using information; (ii) less than marked limitation in attending and completing tasks; (iii) less than marked limitation in interacting and relating with others; (iv) no limitation in moving about and manipulating objects; (v) less than marked limitation in caring for himself; and (vi) no limitation in health and physical well-being. Tr. 23-28. Because Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments resulting in either marked limitations in two domains or an extreme limitation in one domain, his impairments did not functionally equal the severity of any listed impairments.

         The ALJ also analyzed Plaintiff's medical conditions under the adult standards for assessing disability because Plaintiff attained age 18 before the ALJ's decision. The ALJ found that, as an adult, Plaintiff retained the same severe impairments. Tr. 28. Despite those impairments, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: The claimant is limited to simple, routine tasks (reasoning level 1), but not at a production rate pace. He can occasionally interact with supervisors, coworkers, and the public. Time off-task during the workday can be accommodated by normal breaks. The claimant can perform work involving few changes in the routine work setting and simple decisions.

Tr. 30. After considering testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy and, therefore, was not disabled. Tr. 31-32.

         Plaintiff asserts three primary arguments in support of his appeal: (1) that the ALJ erred in evaluating his ability to interact and relate with others; (2) that the ALJ erred in assessing his ability to attend and complete tasks; and (3) that the ALJ provided inadequate discussion of his RFC assessment as to his claim after he attained the age of 18. Each argument lacks merit for the reasons addressed below.

         First, Plaintiff contends that he should have been found to have a marked limitation in the functional domain of “interacting and relating with others.” ECF 16-1 at 10-18. As noted above, in assessing a claimant's limitations, the ALJ is required to consider evidence of a claimant's interactions at home, at school, and in the community. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b). In this case, as the ALJ explained, the only significant evidence of aggressive or paranoid behavior came from the subjective reports from Plaintiff's mother. See Tr. 20 (noting that despite Plaintiff's mother's reports of anger management issues, “he was popular as ‘the class clown, '” and was “quiet and somewhat anxious and withdrawn” and “engaged in a polite manner” on examination); Tr. 20-21 (noting at another examination that Plaintiff “was well-groomed and displayed socially appropriate behavior” and “denied any angry/aggressive behavior and instead reported positive social interactions.”); Tr. 21 (noting another examination at which “the claimant did not contribute a great deal during the interview, instead allowing his mother to do most of the talking, ” and “appeared sullen, inattentive, and withdrawn”). None of the examiners reported any displays of anger or aggression or paranoia. Tr. 21. Further, as the ALJ noted, “The claimant's teachers noted his ...


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