United States District Court, N.D. New York
VICTORIA M. ESPOSITO, ESQ. LEGAL AID SOCIETY OF NORTHEASTERN NEW YORK, INC, 17 Hodskin Street P.O. Box 648 Canton, NY 13617. Counsel for Plaintiff.
LAUREN E. MYERS, ESQ. Special Assistant U.S. Attorney U.S. SOCIAL SECURITY ADMIN. OFFICE OF REG'L GEN. COUNSEL - REGION II 26 Federal Plaza - Room 3904 New York, NY 10278. Counsel for Defendant
DECISION and ORDER
GLENN T. SUDDABY, District Judge.
Currently before the Court, in this Social Security action filed by Jeanna Pankey ("Plaintiff") on behalf of her son, T.P., against the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or "the Commissioner") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), are the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. (Dkt. Nos. 13, 14.) For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion is granted and Plaintiff's motion is denied.
I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND
A. Factual Background
T.P. was born on February 11, 2005. At the time of his hearing, T.P. was in the second grade. T.P.'s alleged impairments are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD") and possible bipolar disorder.
B. Procedural History
On October 27, 2011, Plaintiff applied for Supplemental Security Income on T.P.'s behalf. Plaintiff's application was initially denied, after which she timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("the ALJ"). On January 3, 2013, Plaintiff and T.P. appeared before the ALJ, Jennifer Gale Smith. (T. 61-95.) The ALJ issued a written decision finding T.P. not disabled under the Social Security Act on March 22, 2013. (T. 25-46.) On July 12, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (T. 1-6.) Thereafter, Plaintiff timely sought judicial review in this Court.
C. The ALJ's Decision
Generally, in her decision, the ALJ made the following six findings of fact and conclusions of law. (T. 31-43.) First, the ALJ found that T.P. was a "school-age child" pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(g)(2) on October 27, 2011 (the date the application for benefits was filed), and on March 22, 2013 (the date of the ALJ's decision), having been born on February 11, 2005. (T. 31.) Second, the ALJ found that T.P. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date the application for benefits was filed. ( Id. ) Third, the ALJ found that T.P. suffers from ADHD and a mood disorder, which are severe impairments pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). ( Id. ) Fourth, the ALJ found that T.P. does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I (the "Listings"). ( Id. ) Fifth, the ALJ found that T.P. does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equals an impairment set forth in the Listings. (T. 32-42.) Sixth, and finally, the ALJ concluded that T.P. has not been disabled, as defined by the Social Security Act, since October 27, 2011, the date his application was filed. (T. 43.)
II. THE PARTIES' BRIEFINGS ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION
A. Plaintiff's Arguments
Plaintiff makes five arguments in support of her motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to properly consider the effect of medication and a structured setting on T.P.'s limitations. (Dkt. No. 13 at 16-19 [Pl.'s Mem. of Law].) Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to properly evaluate the credibility of her testimony. ( Id. at 19-20.) Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to consider all of T.P.'s medically determinable impairments. ( Id. at 20.) Fourth, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to find that T.P. has a marked limitation in the domain of acquiring and using information. ( Id. at 20-21.) Fifth, and finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to find that T.P. has a marked limitation in the domain of interacting and relating with others. ( Id. at 21-24.)
B. Defendant's Arguments
In response, Defendant makes four arguments. First, Defendant argues that the ALJ properly considered the effect of medication and a structured setting. (Dkt. No. 14 at 4-5 [Def.'s Mem. of Law].) Second, Defendant argues that the ALJ performed a proper analysis of Plaintiff's credibility. ( Id. at 5-6.) Third, Defendant argues that the ALJ considered all of T.P.'s medically determinable impairments. ( Id. at 6-7.) Fourth, and finally, Defendant argues that the ALJ correctly found that T.P.'s impairments did not functionally equal an impairment set forth in the Listings. ( Id. at 7-11.)
III. RELEVANT LEGAL STANDARD
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 the correct legal standards were not applied, or if there determination was not supported by substantial evidence. See Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987) ("Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles."); 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 evidence that 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 (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).
"To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." 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).
An individual under the age of eighteen (18) is disabled, and thus eligible for Social Security Income benefits, if 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. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i). However, that definitional provision excludes from coverage any "individual under the age of [eighteen] who engages in substantial gainful activity..." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(ii).
By regulation, the agency has prescribed a three-step evaluative process to be employed in determining whether a child can meet the statutory definition of disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924; Kittles v. Barnhart, 245 F.Supp.2d 479, 487-88 (E.D.N.Y. 2003); Ramos v. Barnhart, 02-CV-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. See 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 Social Security Income benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(ii); 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b).
If the claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step of the test next requires examination 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. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c); Kittles, 245 F.Supp.2d at 488; Ramos, 2003 WL 21032012, at *7. In essence, "a child is [disabled under the Social Security Act] if his impairment is as severe as one that would prevent an adult from working." Zebley v. Sullivan, 493 U.S. 521, 529, 110 S.Ct. 885, 890 (1990).
If the existence of a severe impairment is discerned, the agency must then determine, at the third step, whether it meets or equals a presumptively disabling condition identified in the listing of impairments set forth under 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P., App. 1 (the "Listings"). Id. Equivalence to a listing can be either medical or functional. See 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 claimant will be deemed disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d)(1); Ramos, 2003 WL 21032012, at *8.
Analysis of functionality is informed by consideration of how a claimant functions in six main areas referred to as "domains." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1); Ramos, 2003 WL 21032012, at *8. The domains are 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). Those domains include the following: (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. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1).
Functional equivalence is established in the event of a finding of an "extreme" limitation, meaning "more than marked, " in a single domain. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a); Ramos, 2003 WL 21032012, at *8. An "extreme limitation" is an impairment that "interferes very seriously with [the claimant's] ability to independently ...