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Valkenberg v. Astrue

May 27, 2010

KRISTINE VAN VALKENBERG O/B/O, B.G. PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT,



REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Kristine Van Valkenberg on behalf of her son (hereinafter "B.G.") brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3), seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her application for child's supplemental security income ("SSI").*fn1

II. Background

On September 24, 2004, Plaintiff on behalf of B.G., who was then 6 years old, filed an application for SSI claiming disability since September 7, 2004, because of a learning disability, an emotional disability, attention impairment, and encopresis*fn2 (R. at 49-52).*fn3 The application was denied initially on January 25, 2005 (R. at 33). Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on April 29, 2005 (R. at 35).

On October 4, 2006, B.G., his mother, and his attorney appeared before the ALJ (R. at 295-317). The ALJ considered the case de novo and, on October 25, 2006, issued a decision finding B.G. was not disabled (R. at 14-31). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision in this case when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on June 27, 2008 (R. at 3-6). On September 10, 2008, Plaintiff filed this action disputing the disability determination.

Pursuant to General Order No. 18, issued by the Chief District Judge of the Northern District of New York on September 12, 2003, this Court will proceed as if both parties had accompanied their briefs with a motion for judgment on the pleadings.*fn4

Plaintiff submitted a Reply Brief and Defendant submitted a Sur-reply Brief, both of which the Court has also considered. Finally, Plaintiff has filed a separate motion requesting this case be remanded pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. Section 405(g).

III. Discussion

A. Legal Standard and Scope of Review

A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383 (c)(3); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will only be reversed if the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987) ("Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles."); see Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983); Marcus v. Califano, 615 F.2d 23, 27 (2d Cir. 1979). "Substantial evidence" is evidence that amounts to "more than a mere scintilla," and it has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. See Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).

"To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." Williams ex rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be sustained "even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's]." Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F. Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). In other words, this Court must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable deference, and may not substitute "its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably have reached a different result upon a de novo review." Valente v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).

A child is considered disabled under the Act if she or he 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). The ALJ will only conclude the child's impairments are disabling if he has marked limitations in two domains or an extreme limitation in one domain. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(d). The Commissioner has established the following three-step sequential analysis to determine whether a child is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. At the first step, if the Commissioner determines the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity," the claimant will be found not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a). If the claimant is not engaging in substantial gainful activity, at the second step the Commissioner will determine whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a). The Commissioner will determine at step three whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments "meets, medically equals, or functionally equals the listings." 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d).

Based on the entire record, the Court recommends remand because the ALJ failed to consider all the relevant probative evidence with respect to B.G.'s ability to acquire and use information.

B. Analysis

1. The Commissioner's Decision

First, the ALJ found that B.G. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (R. at 20). Then, the ALJ found that B.G. had the following severe impairments: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"), a learning disability, an adjustment disorder, and encopresis (R. at 20). However, the ALJ concluded B.G.'s impairments did not meet or medically equaled a listed impairment, either individually or in combination (R. at 21).

Finally, the ALJ found B.G.'s impairments were not functionally equivalent to the listings (R. at 21-30). Specifically, the ALJ found B.G. had a marked limitation in the domain of attending and completing tasks but less than marked limitations in: acquiring and using information, interacting and relating with others, moving about and manipulating objects, caring for himself, and health and physical well-being (R. at 25-30).

2. Plaintiff's Claims

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ (a) should have found B.G.'s impairments met or equaled Listing 112.11 and should have explained his conclusion; (b) did not consider the combination of B.G.'s impairments; (c) should have found B.G. had a marked limitation in acquiring and using information or an extreme limitation in attending and completing tasks; (d) made erroneous inconsistent statements (e); did not consider the cumulative effects of B.G.'s encopresis; (f) did not properly consider the social worker's opinions; (g) did not properly consider the special education teacher's opinions; (h) did not properly consider the school psychologist's opinions; and (i) erred in failing to call a medical expert. Plaintiff also requeststhat (j) the Court should remand in light of new evidence submitted to the Court under sentence six of 42 U.S.C. Section 405(g). Finally, Plaintiff argues that (k) the ALJ should have developed evidence from a Dr. Green. Plaintiff's Brief, pp. 18-26; Plaintiff's Reply Brief, pp. 1-7; Plaintiff's Motion, Docket No. 14.

a. The ALJ Properly Explained That B.G.'s Impairments did not Meet or Equal Listing 112.11 and his Conclusion was Supported by Substantial Evidence

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have found that B.G. met the requirements of Listing 112.11 for ADHD. Plaintiff's Brief, pp. 24-25. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ failed to explain his conclusion that B.G. did not meet Listing 112.11 for ADHD. Plaintiff's Brief, p. 24. Defendant argues that the ALJ's conclusion was supported by substantial evidence. Defendant's Brief, pp. 20-22.

The Supreme Court has explained that a claimant's impairment does not meet a Listing if it "manifests only some of [the] criteria, no matter how severely." See Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990) (citing S.S.R. 83-19, 1983 WL 31248). Listing 112.11 describes the criteria for ADHD as follows:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Manifested by developmentally inappropriate degrees of inattention, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity.

The required level of severity for these disorders is met when the requirements in both A and B are satisfied.

A. Medically documented findings of all three of the following:

1. Marked inattention; and

2. Marked impulsiveness; and

3. Marked hyperactivity;

AND B. . . . for children (age 3 to attainment of age 18), resulting in at least two of the appropriate age-group criteria in paragraph B2 of 112.02.

a. Marked impairment in age-appropriate cognitive/communicative function, documented by medical findings (including consideration of historical and other information from parents or other individuals who have knowledge of the child, when such information is needed and available) and including, if necessary, the results of appropriate standardized psychological tests, . . .; or

b. Marked impairment in age-appropriate social functioning, documented by history and medical findings (including consideration of information from parents or other individuals who have knowledge of the child, when such information is needed and available) and including, if necessary, the results of appropriate standardized tests; or

c. Marked impairment in age-appropriate personal functioning, documented by history and medical findings (including consideration of information from parents or other individuals who have knowledge of the child, when such information is needed and available) and including, if necessary, appropriate standardized tests; or

d. Marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. §§ 112.02(B)(2)(a)-(d), 112.11(A)-(B).

In this case, the ALJ concluded that B.G.'s impairments did not meet or medically equal Listing 112.11 because they did not meet the listed criteria (R. at 21). The ALJ reasoned that although B.G. had "some of the [paragraph A] diagnostic symptoms necessary to meet the initial criteria of listing 112.11 . . . [his ADHD] even when combined with all of his other impairments, does not result in sufficient marked limitation of function necessary to satisfy the functional criteria of [paragraph] B" (R. at 21). The ALJ explained that B.G. "may have marked difficulties in maintaining concentration persistence and pace," but he "does not have a marked impairment in age appropriate cognitive/communicative function, a marked impairment in age-appropriate social functioning, or a marked impairment in age-appropriate personal functioning" (R. at 21).

As an initial matter the Court concludes that the ALJ properly explained his conclusion that B.G. did not meet all of the criteria for Listing 112.11. Plaintiff correctly notes that an ALJ must provide a sufficient rationale, not merely a cursory conclusion that a claimant's impairments do not meet a listing. See Hunt v. Astrue, 2008 WL 3836406, at *10 (N.D.N.Y. Aug. 13, 2008) (finding the ALJ "failed to provide a sufficient rationale" where he "cited no medical evidence and provided very little reasoning"). However, in this case the ALJ clearly explained in sufficient detailthat he found B.G.'s impairments did not satisfy the diagnostic criteria or the paragraph B ...


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