United States District Court, E.D. New York
PARTNERSHIP FOR CHILDREN'S RIGHTS, Thomas Gray, New York, NY, Attorneys for Plaintiff.
LORETTA E. LYNCH, Candace Scott Appleton, United States Attorney, Eastern District of New York, Brooklyn, NY, Attorney for Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
JOHN GLEESON, District Judge.
Ramona Blash, on behalf of her daughter D.A.S., seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the Social Security Administration's denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The parties have cross-moved for judgment on the pleadings. Blash asserts that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") committed various errors in finding D.A.S. not disabled and seeks a remand to the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") for further proceedings. The Commissioner requests that I affirm her decision. I heard oral argument on March 14, 2014. For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's motion is denied, Blash's motion is granted and the case is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.
A. Procedural History
D.A.S. was born on May 29, 2007. R. 33. Blash filed an application for SSI on behalf of D.A.S. on September 29, 2010 - when D.A.S. was three years old - alleging a disability onset date of June 30, 2010. R. 159. The application alleged that D.A.S. suffers from asthma, lead poisoning, and behavioral problems. R. 203. The claim was denied, R. 85, and Blash requested a hearing. R. 89-90. A hearing was held before ALJ Margaret A. Donaghy on October 27, 2011, but, after some brief testimony from Blash, was adjourned so that the record could be further developed and to allow Blash to look into obtaining an attorney. R. 82. The hearing resumed on January 12, 2012, and Blash remained unrepresented by counsel. R. 29. The ALJ issued a decision on March 27, 2012, in which she concluded that D.A.S. is not disabled. R. 14-16. Blash requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision and submitted some additional records. R. 4-5. The Appeals Council denied Blash's request for review, thus rendering the ALJ's adverse finding the Commissioner's final decision. R 1-3. Blash brought this action on July 15, 2013, alleging that D.A.S. is disabled under the regulations because she suffers from disruptive behavioral disorder, asthma, lead poisoning, and speech delay. Compl., ECF No. 1 ¶ 4.
B. Regulatory Standards
A person under the age of 18 is considered disabled and entitled to SSI under the Social Security Act if they have "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.A. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i). The Commissioner's regulations set out a three-step process for determining whether a minor meets this statutory definition of disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924.
The first step requires a determination of whether the child is engaging in "substantial gainful activity." Id. § 416.924(a). If so, the claimant is not eligible for SSI. Id. § 416.924(b). If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, at step two the regulations require a determination of 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." Jones ex rel. T.J. v. Astrue, No. 07-CV-4886, 2010 WL 1049283, at *5 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 17, 2010) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c)) aff'd sub nom. Jones ex rel. Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 432 F.Appx. 23 (2d Cir. 2011). At the third step, if the child is determined to suffer from at least one severe impairment, the Commissioner determines whether such impairment or impairments meet, medically equal, or functionally equal a presumptively disabling impairment identified in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P., App. 1 (a "listed impairment"). See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d); Kittles ex rel. Lawton v. Barnhart, 245 F.Supp.2d 479, 488 (E.D.N.Y. 2003).
Whether a claimant's impairment functionally equals a listed impairment is determined with reference to how the claimant functions in six "domains, " which are "broad areas of functioning intended to capture all of what a child can or cannot do." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1); see also Jones, 2010 WL 1049283, at *6. These domains include: "(i) [a]cquiring and using information; (ii) [a]ttending and completing tasks; (iii) [i]nteracting and relating with others; (iv) [m]oving about and manipulating objects; (v) [c]aring for [oneself]; and (vi) [h]ealth and physical well-being." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1)(i)-(vi). If the claimant exhibits "marked" limitations in at least two of these domains or an "extreme" limitation in one or more of the domains, the claimant's impairment is considered functionally equal to a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a); see also Kittles, 245 F.Supp.2d at 489. 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). An "extreme limitation" exists when a claimant's impairment "interferes very seriously with [the claimant's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities." Id. § 416.926a(e)(3)(i) (emphasis added).
C. The ALJ's Decision
At the first step of the three-step process described above, the ALJ determined that D.A.S. had never engaged in substantial gainful activity. R. 14. At step two, the ALJ found that D.A.S. suffered from the following severe impairments: lead poisoning, asthma, disruptive behavior disorder, and a speech and language delay. R. 14-15. However, at the third step, she determined that none of these impairments, either individually or in combination, meet, medically equal, or functionally equal a listed impairment. R. 15. In support of this finding, the ALJ analyzed D.A.S.'s capabilities in each of the six functional domains and ...