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Lopez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 27, 2018

JOHN PAUL LOPEZ, on behalf of A.J.L., a minor, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Remand to Agency for Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum. Doc. 21. Having reviewed the Motion, the relevant law, and being otherwise fully advised, the Court DENIES the Motion for the reasons explained below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff brings the present claim on behalf of A.J.L., a minor. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for supplemental security income on January 24, 2013. AR 13. Plaintiff claimed that A.J.L. was disabled due to attention deficient hyperactivity disorder. AR 57. Plaintiff claimed a disability onset date of August 1, 2009. AR 57. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on May 7, 2013. AR 13. Plaintiff thereafter requested a hearing. AR 13. The hearing was held on January 5, 2015. AR 13. On January 29, 2015, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued her decision finding A.J.L. not disabled. AR 27. This appeal followed. Because the parties are familiar with the record in this case, the Court will reserve discussion of A.J.L.'s pertinent medical history for its analysis of the issues currently presented.


         A. Determining Disability for Children

         A child is disabled for purposes of receiving SSI 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.” 42 U.S.C.A. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i). The ALJ uses a three-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an individual under the age of 18 is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a); see also Briggs ex rel. Briggs v. Massanari, 248 F.3d 1235, 1237 (10th Cir. 2001). At Step One, the ALJ determines whether the child is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b); see also Briggs, 248 F.3d at 1237. If he or she is, the ALJ may not find the child to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b). At Step Two, the ALJ examines whether “the child has an impairment or combination of impairments that is severe . . . .” Briggs, 248 F.3d at 1237 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). If there are no severe impairments, the child is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). Finally, at Step Three the ALJ determines whether the child's impairment(s) “meets or equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404.” Briggs, 248 F.3d at 1237 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a)); see also 20 C.F.R. §419.924(d).

         “An impairment will be found to cause ‘marked and severe functional limitations' if it meets or medically equals a listed impairment, or if it is functionally equal in severity to a listed impairment.” Brown ex rel. Brown v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 311 F.Supp.2d 1151, 1156-57 (D. Kan. 2004) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924(d), 416.926a). “To be functionally equivalent, the child's limitations must be at least equal in severity and duration to limitations associated with a listed impairment.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.926). “The ‘functionally equivalent' analysis requires the Commissioner to analyze six domains, which are ‘broad areas of functioning intended to capture all of what a child can or cannot do.'” Id. (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1)). The six domains to be addressed by the ALJ include: “(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.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1)(i)-(vi)).

         “A child's impairment or combination of impairments functionally equals the listings and, thus, constitutes a disability under the Act, when it results in ‘marked' limitations in two domains or an ‘extreme' limitation in one domain, as described under the relevant regulation, 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a.” Perez v. Astrue, No. 08-cv-02176-PAB, 2009 WL 3076259, at *4 (D. Colo. Sept. 23, 2009). In general, a limitation is “marked” when it “interferes seriously with [a claimant's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i). An “extreme” limitation very seriously interferes with this ability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926(e)(3)(i). In determining whether a limitation is marked or extreme, the “whole child” approach seeks answers to questions about the child's activities, limitations, and the factors involved in the limited activities to construct a picture “of the child's functioning in each domain.” SSR 09-1p, Title XVI: Determining Childhood Disability under the Functional Equivalence Rule - The “Whole Child” Approach, 2009 WL 396031, at *7 (Feb. 17, 2009).

         B. Standard of Review

         A court must affirm the denial of social security benefits unless (1) the decision is not supported by “substantial evidence” or (2) the ALJ did not apply the proper legal standards in reaching the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 933 F.2d 799, 800-01 (10th Cir. 1991). In making these determinations, the reviewing court “neither reweigh[s] the evidence nor substitute[s] [its] judgment for that of the agency.'” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008). For example, a court's disagreement with a decision is immaterial to the substantial evidence analysis. A decision is supported by substantial evidence as long as it is supported by “relevant evidence . . . a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support [the] conclusion.” Casias, 933 F.3d at 800. While this requires more than a mere scintilla of evidence, Casias, 933 F.3d at 800, “[t]he possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the] findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         Furthermore, even if a court agrees with a decision to deny benefits, if the ALJ's reasons for the decision are improper or are not articulated with sufficient particularity to allow for judicial review, the court cannot affirm the decision as legally correct. Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009 (10th Cir. 1996). As a baseline, the ALJ must support his or her findings with specific weighing of the evidence and “the record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence.” Id. at 1009-10. This does not mean that an ALJ must discuss every piece of evidence in the record. But, it does require that the ALJ identify the evidence supporting the decision and discuss any probative and contradictory evidence that the ALJ is rejecting. Id. at 1010.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and that she failed to apply the correct legal standards. Doc. 21 at 1. More specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by failing to support her findings that Plaintiff has less than marked limitations in the domains of acquiring and using information, attending and completing tasks, and interacting and relating with others. As explained more below, Plaintiff's arguments on these points essentially ask the Court to reweigh the evidence, which it will not do. See Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (“The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence. We may not displace the agency's choice between two fairly conflicting views, even though the court would justifiably have made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.”). The Court therefore rejects Plaintiff's contention that the ALJ's analysis consists of “mostly boilerplate language and minimal analysis.” See Doc. 21 at 7.

         A. The Domain of Acquiring ...

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