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Littlefield v. Astrue

March 17, 2008

REBECCA E. LITTLEFIELD, ON BEHALF OF C.E.L., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANTS.



DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff filed this action in federal court on October 5, 2005 on behalf of her minor daughter, C.E.L., seeking review of the Social Security Administration's denial of her daughter's application for children's social security income ("SSI") benefits under the Social Security Act. Compl. (Dkt. No. 1). The matter is before the Court following a Report-Recommendation filed on January 8, 2008 by the Honorable David E. Peebles, United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and L.R. 72.3 of the Northern District of New York. Report-Rec. (Dkt. No. 11). "A [district] judge... may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). In the Report-Recommendation, the Magistrate Judge recommended that the agency's decision denying benefits to C.E.L. be affirmed. Report-Rec. (Dkt. No. 11).

Plaintiff Rebecca E. Littlefield filed timely objections to the Report-Recommendation on January 22, 2008. Pl.'s Objections (Dkt. No. 12). She asserted therein that the recommendations to the Court are in error in finding substantial evidence for the administrative law judge's conclusion that C.E.L. is not disabled according to the criteria of a listed condition or the analysis for functional equivalence; in finding that the administrative law judge applied the proper legal standard in the utilization of treating physicians' testimony; and in finding that Plaintiff Littlefield's testimony was afforded proper weight. Id. at 3, 9, 15, 21. It is the duty of this Court to "make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). The Court has conducted a de novo review in light of Plaintiff's objections. For the reasons stated below, the Court holds that the Commissioner's determination that C.E.L. is not disabled is reversed, and the case is remanded to the agency for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

To augment the discussion below, the Court adopts the description of the case's factual background contained in the Magistrate Judge's Report-Recommendation. See Report-Rec., Part I., (Dkt. No. 11) at 3-6.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits on behalf of her minor daughter, C.E.L., on October 6, 2003. Administrative Transcript (Dkt. No. 6) at 95 (hereinafter "AT __"). The asserted date of onset of disability is February 4, 2002. Id. The application was denied on December 30, 2003. AT 87. Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Barry Anderson on October 13, 2004. AT 57-86.

In applying the childhood disability analysis to the facts of this case, the ALJ found, at the first step, that C.E.L. has "not engaged in substantial gainful activity during any part of the period under adjudication." AT 45. Second, the ALJ found that "[t]he child has a depressive disorder, an anxiety disorder, and a disruptive behavior (oppositional defiant) disorder with borderline to low average intellectual functioning, which are 'severe'" impairments for purposes of the three-step childhood disability test. Id. However, the ALJ then found that C.E.L.'s condition does not constitute the listed conditions of 112.04 (mood disorders), 112.06 (anxiety disorders), or 112.08 (personality disorders), because there was evidence of only one area of marked impairment, and two out of four specific areas must be markedly impaired to satisfy these listings. AT 46. Specifically, the ALJ found that C.E.L. is markedly impaired in the area of social functioning, but less than markedly impaired in age-appropriate cognitive/communicative function; age-appropriate personal functioning; and maintenance of concentration, persistence, or pace. Id.

Furthermore, the ALJ found that C.E.L.'s limitations are not functionally equivalent to a listed impairment because there was evidence of a marked limitation in only one, rather than the required two, out of six domains; and because she was not severely limited in any one of the six domains. AT 50-51. In this analysis, ALJ Anderson found C.E.L. suffers from a marked limitation in her ability to interact with and relate to others, but less than a marked limitation in acquiring and using information; attending and completing tasks; interacting and relating with others; moving about and manipulating objects; caring for herself; and health and physical well-being. AT 48-50 Based on these findings, ALJ Anderson concluded that C.E.L. is not disabled, and denied the application for SSI benefits in a decision issued on October 27, 2004. AT 48-51. On August 30, 2005, the Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, and the ALJ's decision became the final determination of the Commissioner. AT 5-7.

Plaintiff filed this action in federal court on October 5, 2005. Compl. (Dkt. No. 1). The matter was referred to the Honorable David E. Peebles, Magistrate Judge, who issued a Report-Recommendation on January 8, 2008, as described supra. Plaintiff timely filed objections to the Report-Recommendation on January 22, 2008. Pl.'s Objections (Dkt. No. 12). Plaintiff's objections assert the following: 1) there is not "substantial evidence" for the determination by the ALJ that C.E.L. does not have a "marked impairment" in two of four areas, so as to constitute a listed impairment; 2) there is not "substantial evidence" for the ALJ's determination, in the functional equivalence analysis, that C.E.L. does not have a "marked" limitation in two domains or an "extreme" limitation in one of the six domains; 3) the ALJ failed to utilize the proper legal standards in evaluating the opinions from treating and non-treating doctors; and 4) the ALJ failed to afford proper weight to the testimony of C.E.L.'s mother. See Objections (Dkt. No. 12) at 3, 9, 15, 21. The case now comes before the Court for review.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Scope Of Review

In reviewing a decision of the Commissioner, a district court is limited to determining whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether the decision is supported by "substantial evidence in the record as a whole." Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000) (internal quotation omitted); Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998) (internal quotation and citations omitted). "To determine on appeal whether an ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining the evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988) (citation omitted). The ALJ is obligated to develop the record, and must demonstrate use of the proper legal standards. Shaw, 221 F.3d at 131. "[W]here there is a reasonable basis for doubting whether the Commissioner applied the appropriate legal standards, even if the ultimate decision may be arguably supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision may not be affirmed." Martone v. Apfel, 70 F. Supp. 2d 145, 148 (2d Cir. 1999) (citation omitted).

B. Childhood Disability Standard

In determining a minor's eligibility for social security benefits, the SSA employs a three-step analysis.*fn1 In his Report-Recommendation to the Court, Magistrate Judge Peebles includes a detailed discussion of the appropriate legal analysis that must be applied by the ALJ. See Report-Rec., Part III., B., (Dkt. No. 11) at 12-15. The Court hereby adopts the ...


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