United States District Court, W.D. New York
STACY L. SKIBINSKI, o/b/o A.I. V. Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
DECISION AND ORDER
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, Chief District Judge.
1. Plaintiff Stacy L. Skibinski challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision, dated July 28, 2011, wherein the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's son A.I.V. was not disabled under section 1614(a)(3)(c) of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for supplemental security income on September 14, 2009, alleging that the child's disability began on August 1, 2008. Plaintiff now contends that the ALJ's determination is not based upon substantial evidence, and reversal is warranted.
2. Plaintiff's application was initially denied on March 24, 2010. Plaintiff was granted a hearing on that denial and, on July 7, 2011, she and her son testified before the ALJ. The ALJ issued a decision denying the application for supplemental security income on July 28, 2011, and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 9, 2013, rendering the ALJ's determination the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff filed the instant action on April 23, 2013.
3. Plaintiff and the Commissioner each filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate where material facts are undisputed and where a judgment on the merits is possible merely by considering the contents of the pleadings. Sellers v. M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc. , 842 F.2d 639, 642 (2d Cir. 1988).
4. 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 it is not supported by substantial evidence or there has been a legal error. 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 that which 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) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). 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), cert denied, 459 U.S. 1212 (1983).
5. To determine whether the 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 on Behalf of 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 will 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).
6. An individual under the age of 18 is considered disabled when he or she "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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i). The Commissioner has established a three-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a child is disabled as defined under the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. Specifically, it must demonstrate that: (1) the child has not engaged in any substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether he or she has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments that cause "more than minimal functional limitations"; and (3) his or her impairment or combination of impairments is of listing-level severity, in that it meets, medically equals, or functionally equals the severity of a listed impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924; see also 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 ("Listing of Impairments").
7. Where an impairment medically meets or equals a listed impairment, the child will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924(d)(1); 416.925. If a child's impairment or combination thereof does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ must assess all functional limitations caused by the child's impairments in terms of six domains: (1) acquiring and using information; (2) attending and completing tasks; (3) interacting and relating with others; (4) moving about and manipulating objects; (5) caring for self; and (6) health and physical well-being. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a), (b)(1). A child is classified as disabled if he or she has a "marked" limitation in two domains of functioning or an "extreme" limitation in one domain. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.926a(d). A "marked" limitation exists when an impairment or the cumulative effect of impairments "interferes seriously with [the child's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i). An "extreme" limitation "interferes very seriously" with that ability. 20 C.F.R. § 414.926a(e)(3)(i).
8. After applying the three-step evaluation in this case, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's child, who was seven years old at the time of the decision: (1) had not engaged in substantial activity since the application date of September 14, 2009; (2) had the following severe impairments: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"); Oppositional Defiant Disorder ("ODD"); and disruptive behavior disorder; and (3) did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that either met, medically equaled, or functionally equaled a listed impairment. (R. 15.) With respect to the functional-equivalent domains, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's child had a less than marked limitation in acquiring and using information, attending and completing tasks, interacting and relating with others, and health and physical well-being. (R. 16-20, 23-25.) The child had no limitations in the remaining two domains. (R. 20-22.) Because the child did not have an impairment or combination thereof that resulted in the functional equivalent of a listed impairment, the ALJ held that the child was not disabled under the relevant section of the Social Security Act.
9. Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ's determination that A.I.V. did not have a marked limitation in his ability to attend to and complete tasks, interact and relate with others, and care for himself is not supported by substantial evidence. More specifically, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ failed to consider all of the evidence in the record, including A.I.V.'s medical and school records showing that he was unable to communicate with adults, control his anger, avoid conflict, aggression, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, sit for any length of time, and that he had been diagnosed with ADHD, ODD, and disruptive behavior. Plaintiff also claims that the ALJ did not provide a sufficient explanation for finding a less than marked limitation in these three domains. Additionally, Plaintiff points out the lack of any medical expert testimony to support the ALJ's findings with respect to these three domains.
10. The Court has reviewed the ALJ's decision in light of Plaintiff's first argument and finds that the ALJ's step 3 determination is proper as a matter of law and is supported by substantial evidence.
11. As an initial matter, the ALJ stated that he considered all of the relevant evidence in the case record, which included objective medical evidence and other relevant evidence from medical sources, information from other sources (such as A.I.V.'s teachers), A.I.V.'s testimony and his mother's statements, and any other relevant evidence in the case record, including how A.I.V. functioned over time and in all settings. The Court finds the ALJ's discussion of the evidence sufficient. Indeed, the ALJ is not required to discuss or analyze every piece of evidence presented. See Mongeur v. Heckler , 722 F.2d 1033, 1040 (2d Cir. 1983) ("When, as here, the evidence of record permits us to glean the rationale of an ALJ's decision, we do not require that he have mentioned every item of testimony presented to him or have explained why he considered particular evidence unpersuasive or insufficient to lead him to a conclusion of disability.").
12. Moreover, the ALJ's determination that A.I.V. was not disabled because he did not have two marked limitations or one extreme limitation in attending to and completing tasks, interacting and relating with others, and caring for himself is supported by substantial evidence.
With respect to the domain of attending and completing tasks, the Commissioner considers the claimant's ability to "focus and maintain [his] attention, and how well [he can] begin, carry through, and finish... activities, including the pace at which [he] perform[s] activities and the ease with which [he] change[s] them." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(h). Here, the ALJ acknowledged that A.I.V. had some limitations in this domain, noting, for instance, that A.I.V.'s psychiatrist reported in April 2009 that A.I.V. had difficulty sitting still and paying attention and that he was diagnosed with ADHD, impulse control traits, and sibling relational problem. (R. 19, 178-80.) The ALJ concluded, however, that A.I.V.'s limitations in this domain did not rise to a marked or severe level. In arriving at this determination, the ALJ relied upon a January 2010 questionnaire from A.I.V.'s first grade teacher Kelly Piccirillo ("Piccirillo") who reported that A.I.V. had "no" problems in this domain and that his "functioning appear[ed] age-appropriate." (R. 19, 135.) Notably, Piccirillo's report was consistent with the other school evidence in the record, namely A.I.V.'s report cards from kindergarten and second grade that showed that he was performing well grade-wise and that his social/personal growth skills and work habits were rated either "satisfactory" or "excellent." (R. 153-54, 172-73.) Piccirillo's report was also consistent with various therapy treatment notes that reflect that A.I.V. was doing well in school and did not exhibit behavioral problems there. (R. 179, 223, 227, 233.) Additionally, as the ALJ noted, ...