United States District Court, N.D. New York
Jaya Shurtliff, Esq., Law Offices of Kenneth Hiller, Amherst, New York, For Plaintiff.
Richard S. Hartunian,
United States Attorney, Elizabeth Rothstein, Esq., Special Assistant United
States Attorney, Social Security Administration, Office of Regional General
Counsel, Region II, New York, New York
MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER
NORMAN A. MORDUE, Senior District Judge.
On November 3, 2008, plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income ("SSI") on behalf of her son, SAH, who was then ten years old. T.10. Plaintiff claimed that SAH suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"), eczema and asthma. On May 19, 2010, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Bruce S. Fein; plaintiff and SAH testified. On November 2, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim for benefits. T.12. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff, on SAH's behalf, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act, and asks the Court to reverse the Commissioner's decision to deny disability benefits and remand for a calculation of benefits. Presently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. Dkt. Nos. 12, 13.
Plaintiff argues: (1) that the ALJ did not use the proper legal standard when evaluating the opinion of plaintiff's treating social worker, Maureen Moretin, LCSWR; (2) that the ALJ erred in finding that SAH has a less than marked limitations in the domain of "Caring for Yourself"; and (3) that the ALJ improperly discounted her credibility.
A Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled will be set aside when the factual findings are not supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000). Substantial evidence has been interpreted to mean "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. The Court may also set aside the Commissioner's decision when it is based upon legal error. Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999).
The Social Security Act defines a child, an individual under the age of eighteen, as disabled and eligible for SSI benefits: "if 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). There is a three-step evaluative process to determine whether a child can meet the statutory definition of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924; Kittles ex rel. Lawton v. Barnhart, 245 F.Supp.2d 479, 487-88 (E.D.N.Y. 2003); Ramos v. Barnhart, No. 02Civ.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 child has not engaged in substantial gainful activity, then the second step requires examination of whether the child suffers from one or more medically determinable impairments that, either singly or in combination, are severe - that is, which causes 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 next determine whether it meets or equals a presumptively disabling condition identified in the listing of impairments set forth by regulation, 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 child will be deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d)(1); Ramos, 2003 WL 21032012, at *8.
Under the Social Security Regulations (the "Regulations"), analysis of functionality is performed by consideration of how a claimant functions in six areas which are denominated as "domains, " and 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); Ramos, 2003 WL 21032012, at *8. The functional 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
(vii) [h]ealth and physical well-being.
20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1). A finding of disability is warranted if a "marked" limitation, defined as 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), is found in two of the listed domains. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a); Ramos, 2003 WL 21032012, at *8. Functional equivalence also exists in the event of a finding of an "extreme" limitation, meaning "more than marked, " representing an impairment which "interferes very seriously with [the claimant's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities, " and this rating is only "give[n] to the worst limitations". 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(3)(I); see also Morgan v. Barnhart, No. 04Civ.6024, 2005 WL 925594, at *11 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 21, 2005).
A. ALJ's Decision
Using the three-step disability evaluation, at step one, the ALJ found that SAH has never engaged in any substantial gainful activity. T.13. At step two, the ALJ concluded that SAH has the following severe impairments: ADHD; eczema; and asthma. T.13. At step three, the ALJ found D.H.'s impairments did not meet, medically equal, or functionally equal any of the listed, presumptively disabling conditions set forth in Appendix 1 of the Regulations. T.14. The ALJ weighed the opinions of SAH's fifth grade teacher, SAH's treating social worker, the state agency review psychiatrist and pediatrician, the consultative psychologist and consultative physician. T.16-18. The ALJ assigned no more than "little weight" to any opinion. T.16-18. The ALJ then evaluated SAH's functional abilities in the six domains established by 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1) and found that: he had a marked limitation in the domain of interacting and relating with others; he had "less than marked" limitations in the domains of acquiring and using information, attending and ...