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Ferrel v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

August 22, 2017

BRANDON CURTIS FERREL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ECF NOS. 18, 20

          MARY K. DIMKE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 18, 20. The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 7. The Court, having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefing, is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies Plaintiffs motion (ECF No. 18) and grants Defendant's motion (ECF No. 20).

         JURISDICTION

         The Court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A district court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review under § 405(g) is limited; the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed “only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1158 (9th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence” means “relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1159 (quotation and citation omitted). Stated differently, substantial evidence equates to “more than a mere scintilla[, ] but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quotation and citation omitted). In determining whether the standard has been satisfied, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole rather than searching for supporting evidence in isolation. Id In reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). If the evidence in the record “is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, [the court] must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). Further, a district court “may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless.” Id. An error is harmless “where it is inconsequential to the [ALJ's] ultimate nondisability determination.” Id. at 1115 (quotation and citation omitted). The party appealing the ALJ's decision generally bears the burden of establishing that it was harmed. Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409-10 (2009).

         THREE-STEP PROCESS FOR CHILDHOOD DISABILITY

         To qualify for Title XVI supplement security income benefits, a child under the age of eighteen must have “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 provide a three-step process to determine whether a claimant satisfies the above criteria. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a). First, the ALJ must determine whether the child is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b). Second, the ALJ considers whether the child has a “medically determinable impairment that is severe, ” which is defined as an impairment that causes “more than minimal functional limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). Finally, if the ALJ finds a severe impairment, the ALJ must then consider whether the impairment “medically equals” or “functionally equals” a disability listed in the “Listing of Impairments.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c)-(d).

         If the ALJ finds that the child's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listing, the ALJ must determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments functionally equals a listing. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a) (2011).[1] The ALJ's functional equivalence assessment requires the ALJ to evaluate the child's functioning in six “domains.” These six domains, which are designed “to capture all of what a child can or cannot do, ” are as follows:

(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(b)(1)(i)-(vi) (2011). A child's impairment will be deemed to functionally equal a listed impairment if the child's condition results in a “marked” limitations in two domains, or an “extreme” limitation in one domain. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a) (2011). An impairment is a “marked limitation” if it “interferes seriously with [a person's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities ” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i) (2011). By contrast, an “extreme limitation” is defined as a limitation that “interferes very seriously with [a person's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(3)(i) (2011).

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         The Secretary of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services protectively applied for Title XVI supplemental security income benefits on April 12, 2012, [2] on behalf of Plaintiff, a minor child, alleging a disability onset date of August 17, 1996.[3] Tr. 150-59. The application was denied initially, Tr. 90-93, and on reconsideration, Tr. 100-03. Plaintiff appeared at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on April 22, 2014. Tr. 45-68. On April 29, 2014, the ALJ denied Plaintiffs claim. Tr. 20-34.

         At step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 2, 2012, the date the application was filed. Tr. 23. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe impairment: cognitive disorder, not otherwise specified with attention deficits. Tr. 23. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a listed impairment. Tr. 23. The ALJ then determined Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equals the severity of the listings. Tr. 23. As a result, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been disabled, as defined in the Social Security Act, since April 2, 2012, the date the application was filed. Tr. 34.

         On February 23, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review, Tr. 1-3, making the Commissioner's decision final for purposes of judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3); 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.1481, 422.210.

         ISSUES

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying him supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. ECF No. 18. Plaintiff raises the following issues for this Court's review:

         1. Whether the ALJ properly determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not functionally equal a listed impairment; and 2. Whether the ALJ properly weighed the medical opinion evidence. ECF No. 18 at 8.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Impairments that Meet or Functionally Equal a Listed Impairment

         First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by failing to find that Plaintiffs impairments meet or functionally equal a listed impairment. ECF No. 18 at 8-14. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges he suffers marked impairment in four of the six domains. Plaintiff further contends that in failing to find marked limitations in at least two domains, the ALJ failed to appropriately weigh medical evidence. Id.

         The ALJ is responsible for deciding functional equivalence after consideration of all evidence submitted. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(n) (2011). The Regulations list the information and factors that will be considered in determining whether a child's impairment functionally equals a Listing. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a (2011); 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924a (2011); 416.924b. In making this determination, the Commissioner considers test scores together with reports and observations of school personnel and others. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924a(a), 416.926a(e)(4)(ii) (2011). The ALJ also considers how much extra help the child needs, how independent he is, how he functions in school, and the effects of treatment, if any. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b) (2011). In evaluating this type of information, the ALJ will consider how the child performs activities as compared to other children his age who do not have impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b) (2011). This information comes from examining and non-examining medical sources as well ...


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