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Easley v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

October 28, 2014

LYNTASHA EASLEY o/b/o P.S.J., Plaintiff,


WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, Chief District Judge.

1. In this action, Plaintiff Lyntasha Easley challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that her minor daughter, P.S.J. ("PSJ"), is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act").

2. On June 9, 2010, Easley filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on behalf of PSJ, who was then just shy of her twelfth birthday, claiming she had been disabled since August 1, 2008 due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"). (R. 163-66, 176.)[1] The application was denied on July 30, 2010. (R. 107, 116-127.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which was held before ALJ Bruce R. Mazzarella on December 7, 2011. (R. 67-105.) Easley and PSJ were represented by counsel at the hearing, at which both claimant and her mother testified. (Id.) Counsel requested the reopening of a prior application filed on PSJ's behalf, which had been denied on July 24, 2009 (R. 105, 108-112), and the request was granted (R. 22, 70-71).[2]

3. The ALJ considered the application de novo and, on January 3, 2012, issued a written decision finding that PSJ was not disabled. (R. 22-39.) The Appeals Council denied her request for review on July 22, 2013. (R. 1-5.) This civil action, commenced on September 13, 2013, challenges the Commissioner's final decision.[3]

4. On January 31, 2014 and April 8, 2014, respectively, Plaintiff and the Commissioner each filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket Nos. 8 and 14.) The motions were fully briefed on May 15, 2014, at which time this Court took the matter under advisement. For the reasons set forth below, the Plaintiff's motion is granted, the Commissioner's motion is denied, and this case will be remanded.

5. 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 be reversed only 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"; it has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Plaintiff 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).

6. "To determine on appeal 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 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).

7. Under the Social Security Act, an individual under the age of 18 is entitled to SSI benefits 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 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i). The regulations set forth a three-step sequential process the ALJ must follow in evaluating SSI claims for minor children. See 20 C. F.R. § 416.924. First, the ALJ must determine whether the child has engaged in substantial gainful activity. If so, the child is ineligible for SSI benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b). If the child has not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires an evaluation of whether the child suffers from an impairment or combination of impairments that cause more than a minimal functional limitation. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). If the child's impairment is severe, the ALJ then must determine whether it meets or equals the criteria of an impairment found in the Listings. If the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, the claimant will be found to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d)(1).

8. If the ALJ determines that the child's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal any listing, the ALJ must then assess whether the child's impairment(s) "functionally equal the listings" by considering how the child functions in terms of the following six "domains":

(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)(i)-(vi). A finding of disability is warranted if a "marked" limitation is found in any two of the listed domains, or an "extreme" limitation in a single domain. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a); see Ramos v. Barnhart, No. 02 Civ. 3127 , 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7463, 2003 WL 21032012, at *8 (S.D.N.Y. May 6, 2003). A "marked" limitation exists when the impairment "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 is an impairment which ...

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