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Brenda Myers, On Behalf of C.N v. Michael J. Astrue

September 18, 2012

BRENDA MYERS, ON BEHALF OF C.N., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

In August of 2007, Plaintiff Brenda Myers filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under the Social Security Act on behalf of her daughter, C.N. ("Claimant"),*fn1 alleging disability due to various impairments, including diabetes mellitus, speech and motor delays, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"). The Commissioner of Social Security denied the application.

Plaintiff, through her attorney, Jaya A. Shurtliff, Esq., commenced this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 (g) and 1383 (c)(3).

This case was referred to the undersigned for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B). (Docket No. 14). Thereafter, the parties, by and through their respective counsel, consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636 (c) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket No. 16).

II. BACKGROUND

The procedural history may be summarized as follows: Plaintiff is the mother and guardian of Claimant, a minor child. On August 3, 2007, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits on Claimant's behalf, alleging disability beginning on June 28, 2007. (T at 90-92).*fn2 The application was denied initially. Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On April 10, 2009, a hearing was held before ALJ Dennis O'Leary. (T at 36). Plaintiff and Claimant appeared in Binghamton, New York with an attorney; the ALJ presided via videoconference from Newark, New Jersey. (T at 36-54).

On June 3, 2009, ALJ O'Leary issued a written decision denying the application for benefits and finding that Claimant was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (T at 20-35). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on November 20, 2009, when the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 1-3).

On December 23, 2009, Plaintiff, acting on Claimant's behalf and with counsel, timely commenced this action by filing a Complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on May 24, 2010. (Docket No. 8). Plaintiff filed a supporting Brief on July 12, 2010. (Docket No. 11). The Commissioner filed a Brief in opposition on August 26, 2010. (Docket No. 13).

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

For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is denied, Plaintiff's motion is granted, and this case is remanded for the calculation of benefits.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standard

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, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (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 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).

An individual under the age of eighteen (18) is disabled, and thus eligible for SSI benefits, if he or she has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that 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). However, that definitional provision excludes from coverage any "individual under the age of [eighteen] who engages in substantial gainful activity...." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(ii).

By regulation, the agency has prescribed a three-step evaluative process to be employed in determining whether a child can meet the statutory definition of disability.

20 C.F.R. § 416.924; Kittles v. Barnhart, 245 F.Supp.2d 479, 487-88 (E.D.N.Y.2003); Ramos v. Barnhart, 02 Civ.3127, 2003 WL 21032012, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. May 6, 2003).

The first step of the test, which bears some similarity to the familiar five-step analysis employed in adult disability cases, requires a determination of whether the child has engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C .F.R. § 416.924(b); Kittles, 245 F.Supp.2d at 488. If so, then both statutorily and by regulation the child is ineligible for SSI benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(ii); 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b).

If the claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step of the test requires an examination as to whether the child suffers from one or more medically determinable impairments that, either singly or in combination, are properly regarded as severe, in that they cause more than a minimal functional limitation. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c); Kittles, 245 F.Supp.2d at 488; Ramos, 2003 WL 21032012, at *7.

If the existence of a severe impairment is discerned, the agency must then determine, at the third step, whether the impairment meets or equals a presumptively disabling condition identified in the listing of impairments set forth under 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P., App. 1 (the "Listings"). Id. Equivalence to a listing can be either medical or functional. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d); Kittles, 245 F.Supp.2d at 488; Ramos, 2003 WL 21032012, at *7. If an impairment is found to meet or qualify as medically or functionally equivalent to a listed disability, and the twelve-month durational requirement is satisfied, the claimant will be deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d)(1); Ramos, 2003 WL 21032012, at *8.

Analysis of functionality is informed by consideration of how a claimant functions in six main areas, commonly referred to as "domains." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1); Ramos, 2003 WL 21032012, at *8. The domains are described as "broad areas of functioning intended to capture all of what a child can or cannot do." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1). Those domains include: (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 oneself; and (vi) health and physical well-being. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1).

Functional equivalence is established in the event of a finding of an "extreme" limitation, meaning "more than marked," in a single domain. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a); Ramos, 2003 WL 21032012, at *8. An "extreme limitation" is an impairment which "interferes very seriously with [the claimant's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(3)(I) (emphasis added).

Alternatively, a finding of disability is warranted if a "marked" limitation is found in any two of the listed domains. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a); Ramos, 2003 WL 21032012, at *8. A "marked limitation" exists when the impairment "interferes seriously with [the claimant's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(I). "A marked limitation may arise when several activities or functions are impaired, or even when only one is impaired, as long as the degree of limitation is such as to interfere seriously with the ability to function (based upon ...


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