United States District Court, W.D. New York
DECISION & ORDER
MARIAN W. PAYSON, Magistrate Judge.
Jahrusalem Henry Smith ("Smith") brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying his application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits ("SSI"). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties have consented to the disposition of this case by a United States magistrate judge. (Docket # 14).
Currently before the Court are the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket ## 8, 10). For the reasons set forth below, this Court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence in the record and complies with applicable legal standards. Accordingly, the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted, and Smith's motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied.
I. Procedural Background
On November 24, 2009, Smith filed an application for SSI benefits alleging disability due to his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"), bipolar disorder, asthma, high lead levels and sleep apnea. (Tr. 153, 157). On April 28, 2010, the Social Security Administration denied the application for benefits, finding that Smith was not disabled. (Tr. 70). Smith requested and was granted a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Brian Kane (the "ALJ"). (Tr. 77-79, 87-90). The ALJ conducted a hearing on May 20, 2011, at which Smith was represented by his attorney, Kelly Laga, Esq. (Tr. 28-67, 75). In a decision dated June 24, 2011, the ALJ found that Smith was not disabled and was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 11-23).
On January 24, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Smith's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 1-4). Smith commenced this action on March 18, 2013, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. (Docket # 1).
II. Non-Medical Evidence
A. Application for Benefits
Smith was born on June 30, 1994 and is now twenty years old. (Tr. 112). Iacy Brantley ("Brantley"), Smith's grandmother and legal guardian at the time of the application, reported that Smith has difficulty seeing and hearing. (Tr. 145). Brantley also reported that Smith's daily activities are limited, although she noted that he goes to school full-time and works part-time during the summers with supervision. (Tr. 147). According to Brantley, Smith's ability to communicate is limited; as examples, she noted that he is unable to deliver phone messages, repeat stories, tell jokes or riddles accurately, or explain why he did something. ( Id. ). Smith reportedly cannot tell time, make correct change when using money, or understand, carry out and remember simple instructions. (Tr. 148). Additionally, Brantley reported that Smith does not have friends, has difficulty making new friends, does not play team sports and generally does not get along with adults, school teachers or his siblings. (Tr. 149).
Brantley reported that Smith has difficulty caring for his personal hygiene, performing household chores, completing homework or other projects, using public transportation, accepting criticism, obeying rules and avoiding accidents. (Tr. 150-51). According to Brantley, Smith is able to prepare meals, arrive at school on time, take medication, stay out of trouble and ask for help when needed. ( Id. ). According to Brantley, Smith does not get along well with others, can be combative, tends to isolate himself and has been suspended from school. (Tr. 164). Brantley reported that Smith is frequently disrespectful towards teachers. (Tr. 165).
Smith's application indicates that he was employed during the summer of 2009 at Artpeace, Inc. (Tr. 186-87). According to his application, he worked four hours per day, five days per week making and selling t-shirts. ( Id. ).
B. Academic Evidence (School Records and Teacher Questionnaires)
1. Sixth Grade (2006-2007)
School records indicate that Smith's sixth grade teacher characterized him as an auditory learner who benefited from having instructions read to him. (Tr. 124). According to his teacher, Smith responded well to adults and peers and had many friends, although he needed to develop better strategies for handling his frustration. ( Id. ). According to his Individualized Education Program ("IEP") dated June 26, 2007, Smith was classified as having an "Other Health Impairment" and was recommended for resource room services for one hour each day. (Tr. 130-32). The IEP also provided for Smith to receive accommodations during testing, including extra time, administration of the tests in a small group setting, and reading the tests aloud to him. (Tr. 133).
According to the IEP, the accommodations were necessary because Smith needed instruction in a smaller environment with a smaller student-to-teacher ratio and minimal distractions. ( Id. ). The IEP noted that Smith had been diagnosed with ADHD and bipolar disorder and was extremely distractible. ( Id. ). Additionally, Smith had difficulty coping with teacher correction, which frequently caused him to have "extremely explosive" behavioral outbursts. ( Id. ). A Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children IV ("WISC-IV) administered on April 25, 2007, demonstrated that Smith had a full-scale intelligence quotient ("IQ") of 89. (Tr. 134). The IEP indicated that Smith demonstrated average range in verbal and nonverbal cognitive skills, possessed academic strength in math with age appropriate skills in both calculation and problem solving and had a solid foundation of phonemic skills and sight word recognition. (Tr. 133).
2. Seventh Grade (2007-2008)
School records indicate that Smith was suspended for several days during seventh grade. (Tr. 315, 327). The suspensions related to Smith's difficulties following classroom rules and fighting with another student. ( Id. ). Results from a New York State Testing Program ("NYSTP") for both math and language arts indicated that Smith was only partially meeting the learning standards. (Tr. 316, 320). Smith received average to below average grades during the school year and failed math, requiring him to attend summer school. (Tr. 294, 300).
On April 29, 2008, Smith's IEP was reviewed to assess his educational needs for the 2008-2009 academic school year. (Tr. 307-13). According to the IEP, Smith demonstrated average range verbal and nonverbal cognitive skills. (Tr. 309). The IEP noted that Smith was frequently distracted by his peers, but was quick to comply with redirection in the resource room. ( Id. ). According to the IEP, Smith's grades were generally good, except math, a class in which he was frequently distracted by his peers. (Tr. 311). Although Smith was never disrespectful to adults, he continued to be distracted by his peers. ( Id. ). It was determined that Smith continue to be classified as having an "Other Health Impairment" and would continue to receive resource room support and testing accommodations. (Tr. 309, 312).
3. Eighth Grade (2008-2009)
School records during Smith's eighth grade year indicate that he generally responded well to adults and peers and worked hard in each subject, although he continued to struggle with math and continued to be influenced by his peers. (Tr. 288). Smith was suspended for ten days during the school year for incidents relating to verbal or physical altercations with other students. (Tr. 254-55, 266).
Results from the NYSTP indicated that Smith was meeting the minimum standards for English language arts but was performing under the minimum standards for math. (Tr. 283-86). Although Smith failed science, he received B's and D's in his other classes during the school year. (Tr. 249). Smith was absent approximately seventy-two times from math class, approximately forty-two times from English, approximately thirty-five times from science and approximately twenty-five times from social studies. ( Id. ).
On April 14, 2009, Smith's IEP was reviewed to assess his educational needs for the 2009-2010 academic school year. (Tr. 256-62). According to the IEP, Smith continued to improve in both math and writing skills and demonstrated average verbal and nonverbal cognitive skills. (Tr. 258). When focused, Smith completed his assignments and performed well, but continued to be distracted by peers and needed to work redirecting himself to his tasks. (Tr. 258, 260). His grades were described as generally good, except for math and science. ( Id. ). It was determined that Smith would continue to receive resource room support and testing accommodations. ( Id. ).
4. Teacher Questionnaires
On June 1, 2011, Smith's global studies teacher, Mrs. Millerthin ("Millerthin"), reported that she had known Smith for two years and that he experienced an unusual degree of absenteeism. (Tr. 343). In the domain of Acquiring and Using Information, Millerthin found that Smith had obvious problems understanding school content and vocabulary, reading and comprehending written material, providing organized oral explanations and adequate descriptions, expressing ideas in written form, recalling and applying previously learned material and applying problem-solving skills in class discussions. (Tr. 344). In addition, Millerthin found that Smith had slight problems comprehending oral instructions and understanding and participating in class discussions. ( Id. ). Millerthin noted that Smith had no problems learning new material, but noted that Smith had difficulty concentrating in class. ( Id. ).
In the domain of Attending and Completing Tasks, Millerthin indicated that Smith had very serious problems completing work accurately without careless mistakes, working without distracting himself or others and working at a reasonable pace and finishing on time. (Tr. 345). In addition, Millerthin noted that Smith had serious problems refocusing to task when necessary, changing from one activity to another without being disruptive, organizing his things or school materials, and completing assignments. ( Id. ). In addition, Millerthin indicated that Smith had obvious problems paying attention when spoken to directly, focusing long enough to finish an assigned task, and carrying out multi-step instructions. ( Id. ). Millerthin noted a slight problem in Smith's ability to carry out single-step instructions. ( Id. ). According to Millerthin, Smith had difficulties maintaining focus and was disruptive to other students. ( Id. ). Millerthin did not indicate any other problems in any of the other domains. (Tr. 346-48).
On June 2, 2011, Smith's math teacher completed a questionnaire. (Tr. 334-41). The math teacher noted that Smith had an unusual degree of absenteeism. (Tr. 334). The math teacher did not note any problems in the domain of Acquiring and Using Information. (Tr. 335). In the domain of Attending and Completing Tasks, the math teacher indicated that Smith had an obvious problem organizing his own things and school materials. (Tr. 336). In addition, the teacher indicated that Smith had slight problems paying attention when spoken to directly, focusing long enough to finish an assigned task, refocusing to task when necessary, carrying out multi-step instructions, completing assignments, completing work accurately without careless mistakes, working without distracting others and working at reasonable pace and finishing on time. ( Id. ). The teacher also noted that Smith had no problems carrying out single-step instructions, waiting to take turns, or changing from one activity to another without being disruptive. ( Id. ). According to the math teacher, although Smith exhibited some problems in this domain, they were not significant enough to "really distract terribly bad." ( Id. ).
According to the math teacher, Smith did not have any serious problems in the domain of Interacting and Relating with Others. (Tr. 337). The teacher indicated that Smith did have obvious problems expressing anger appropriately, using language appropriate to the situation, and listening. ( Id. ). In addition, the teacher noted slight problems playing cooperatively with other children, seeking attention appropriately, following rules, introducing and maintaining relevant and appropriate topics of conversation, and interpreting meaning of facial expression, body language, hints and sarcasm. ( Id. ). According to the teacher, Smith did not have any problems making and keeping friends, asking permission appropriately, respecting and obeying adults in authority, taking turns in conversation or using adequate vocabulary and grammar to express thoughts and ideas in general everyday conversation. ( Id. ). According to the teacher, when Smith got angry, the teacher would let him take a "time out to cool off." ( Id. ). The math teacher indicated that he could almost always understand Smith's speech. (Tr. 338).
In the domain of Moving About and Manipulating Objects, the math teacher observed obvious problems in Smith's ability to move his body from one place to another and slight problems in his ability to move and manipulate things and demonstrate strength, coordination and dexterity in activities or tasks. ( Id. ).
In the domain of Caring for Himself, the math teacher indicated that Smith had obvious problems handling frustration appropriately and responding appropriately to changes in his own mood. (Tr. 339). In addition, the teacher noted that Smith had slight problems being patient, using good judgment regarding personal safety and dangerous circumstances, identifying and appropriately asserting emotional needs, using appropriate coping skills to meet the demands of his school environment, and knowing when to ask for help. ( Id. ). The teacher also noted that Smith had no problems taking care of his personal hygiene and caring for his physical needs. ( Id. ).
One of Smith's teachers, Mary Catherine Bosner, declined to complete a teacher questionnaire because she did not feel that she knew him well enough as a result of his excessive absenteeism. (Tr. 351).
III. Relevant Medical Evidence
A. Unity Behavioral Health Records
Treatment notes indicate that Smith received mental health treatment at Unity Behavioral Mental Health ("Unity") between 2006 and 2010. (Tr. 429-75, 503-17, 664-83). Originally, Smith was seen by James Wallace ("Wallace"), MD, for medication management. (Tr. 517). During a visit in May 2006, Smith's grandmother and brother expressed concerns regarding Smith's "explosive" responses in a variety of settings. ( Id. ). Wallace noted that Smith had been diagnosed with sleep apnea and was taking Risperdal for mental health issues. ( Id. ). Wallace considered decreasing the Risperdal dose and adding a mood stabilizer during the summer months. ( Id. ).
Smith returned for another appointment with Wallace on January 16, 2007. (Tr. 512). During the visit, Smith reported that he was doing "ok" in school and that he was planning to re-engage in mental health counseling at Unity. ( Id. ). Wallace noted that Smith was taking Depakote and Risperdal, which were controlling his mood. ( Id. ). Smith returned for another appointment with Wallace on August 14, 2007. (Tr. 503-05). Smith displayed reactivity and oppositional defiance behaviors. ( Id. ). Wallace noted that Smith's family life presented challenges and opined that Smith might suffer from bipolar disorder with oppositional defiant disorder behaviors. ( Id. ). In October 2007, Smith was seen by Wallace who noted that he was doing better in school and was less reactive to triggers. (Tr. 509-10).
Smith returned for an appointment in May 2008 and reported that he was no longer taking his medications. (Tr. 506-08). According to the treatment notes, Smith was struggling in school and exhibiting oppositional defiance with certain teachers, administrators and other children. ( Id. ). Wallace diagnosed Smith with oppositional ...