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Rodgers v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 7, 2018

RYAN CHRISTOPHER RODGERS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION

          HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Ryan Christopher Rodgers' Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing, With Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 17), filed March 20, 2018; Defendant's Brief in Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Remand Commissioner's Administrative Decision (the “Response”), (Doc. 19), filed May 21, 2018; and Mr. Rodgers' Reply to Brief in Response to Motion to Remand (the “Reply”), (Doc. 20), filed June 4, 2018. United States District Judge Martha Vazquez referred this case to Magistrate Judge Carmen E. Garza to perform legal analysis and recommend an ultimate disposition. (Doc. 22).

         On October 18, 2013, Becky Pritchett applied for supplemental security income on behalf of her child, Ryan Christopher Rodgers, who was not yet 18 years old. (Administrative Record “AR” 15). Ms. Pritchett alleged Mr. Rodgers' disability began on January 1, 2007, and is due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), adjustment disorder with depression, bipolar mania, and schizophrenia. (AR 227-28). The claim was denied initially on February 26, 2014, and upon reconsideration on October 6, 2014. (AR 15). A request for a hearing was filed, and a hearing was held on August 15, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Deirdre O. Dexter. (AR 41).[1]Mr. Rodgers and Bonnie Ward, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing, and Michelle Baca, an attorney, represented Mr. Rodgers at the hearing. (AR 41-71).

         On September 28, 2016, the ALJ issued her decision, finding that Mr. Rodgers was not disabled either prior to or after the date he turned 18 years old. (AR 35). Mr. Rodgers requested review by the Appeals Council, which was denied, (AR 1-5), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal.

         Mr. Rodgers, who is now represented by Francesca MacDowell, argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to properly consider Mr. Rodgers' limitations in assessing his functioning as an adolescent; and (2) failing to properly consider the medical opinion evidence regarding Mr. Rodgers' mental limitations in determining his residual functional capacity (“RFC”). (Doc. 17 at 5-26). The Court has reviewed the Motion, the Response, the Reply, and the relevant law. Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed the administrative record. Because the Court finds that the ALJ failed to properly consider Mr. Rodgers' limitations in her assessment of his functioning as an adolescent, and erred in considering the medical opinion evidence in determining his RFC, the Court recommends that Mr. Rodgers' motion be GRANTED and this case be REMANDED to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008); Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992). If substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings and the correct legal standards were applied, the Commissioner's decision stands and the plaintiff is not entitled to relief. Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). The Commissioner's “failure to apply the correct legal standards, or show . . . that she has done so, are grounds for reversal.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court's review is limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is generally the ALJ's decision, rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review. O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir. 1994).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. An ALJ's decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a mere scintilla of evidence supporting” it. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. While the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its examination of the record must include “anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2005). “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the ALJ]'s 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)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         For purposes of supplemental security income (“SSI”), a child under the age of eighteen is “disabled” when he “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.” Briggs ex rel. Briggs v. Massanari, 248 F.3d 1235, 1237 (10th Cir. 2001) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i)). In light of this definition for disability, a three-step sequential evaluation process has been established for evaluating a child's disability claim. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a); Briggs, 248 F.3d at 1237. The ALJ “must determine, in this order, (1) that the child is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, (2) that the child has an impairment or combination of impairments that is severe, and (3) that the child's impairment 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)).

         If, at step three, the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine if the limitations caused by the child's impairments are functionally equivalent to a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. 416.926a. The “functionally equivalent” analysis requires the ALJ to assess the child's functioning in terms of six domains: (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); Briggs, 248 F.3d at 1238. If the child is extremely limited in one domain, or markedly limited in two domains, the impairment is functionally equivalent to the relevant listing and the child is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a). A limitation is marked if the “impairment(s) interferes seriously with [the] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i). A limitation is extreme if the “impairment(s) interferes very seriously with [the] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(3)(i).

         In a claim for SSI as an adult, a person eighteen years or older establishes a disability when he is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment 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. § 423(d)(1)(A), 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). In light of this definition for disability, a five-step sequential evaluation process has been established for evaluating an adult's disability claim. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987).

         At the first four steps of the sequential evaluation process, the claimant has the burden to show that: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) he has a “severe medically determinable . . . impairment . . . or a combination of impairments” that has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year; and (3) his impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the “Listings”[2] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) he is unable to perform his “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If the ALJ determines the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ will proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step five the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1257.

         III. Background

         On October 18, 2013, Becky Pritchett applied for SSI on behalf of her son, Ryan Christopher Rodgers, due to ADHD, adjustment disorder with depression, bipolar mania, and schizophrenia. (AR 14, 227-28). Because Mr. Rodgers was under the age of eighteen when he applied for SSI, and turned eighteen during these proceedings, the ALJ determined whether Mr. Rodgers was disabled under the standards for both children and adults. Beginning with the sequential evaluation process for a person under the age of eighteen, at step one the ALJ found that Mr. Rodgers had not engaged in substantial gainful activity. (AR 19). At step two, the ALJ found Mr. Rodgers had the following severe impairments: ADHD, personality disorder, and affective disorder. (AR 20).

         The ALJ then proceeded to step three. First, the ALJ determined that Mr. Rodgers' impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments. (AR 20). She then found that Mr. Rodgers did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equaled any of the listings. Id. In making her determination, the ALJ stated that Mr. Rodgers' medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged symptoms, however Mr. Rodgers' statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms were not consistent with the medical and other evidence in the record. (AR 22). The ALJ based this finding on testimony given at the hearing, child function reports completed by Mr. Rodgers' mother, teacher reports, and medical records and opinions. (AR 20-24).

         The ALJ considered the same evidence to make her functional equivalence finding. In terms of the six domains, the ALJ found that Mr. Rodgers had less than marked limitations in acquiring and using information; less than marked limitations in attending and completing tasks; less than marked limitations in interacting and relating with others; no limitations in moving about and manipulating objects; less than marked limitations in the ability to care for himself; and no limitations in health and physical well-being. (AR 24-30). Accordingly, she found that Mr. Rodgers was not disabled under the Social Security Act before the day he turned eighteen. (AR 30).

         Next, the ALJ analyzed whether Mr. Rodgers was disabled after reaching the age of eighteen. She began with step two, noting that Mr. Rodgers had not developed any new impairments since attaining age eighteen, and that Mr. Rodgers continues to have severe impairments. (AR 30-31). At step three, the ALJ again determined that none of Mr. Rodgers' impairments, solely or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). (AR 31).

         The ALJ proceeded to step four. She found that, since attaining age eighteen, Mr. Rodgers has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, with the following nonexertional limitations: he can perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, but not at a fast-paced production rate; the job should not require strict production quotas or involve close, over-the-shoulder type supervision; Mr. Rodgers cannot set his own work goals or make work plans independently of others; the job should not involve more than ordinary and routine changes in work setting or work duties; Mr. Rodgers is able to make simple, work-related decisions; Mr. Rodgers is able to occasionally interact with supervisors as needed to receive work instructions; he is able to work in proximity to co-workers, but should have no more than occasional direct work interaction with co-workers; and he should never interact with the general public. Id. The ALJ noted that Mr. Rodgers has no past relevant work, and moved on to step five. (AR 33).

         The ALJ stated that Mr. Rodgers is a “younger individual age 18-44” as defined by the Regulations, has a limited education, and is able to communicate in English. Id. The ALJ stated the VE testified at the hearing that an individual with Mr. Rodgers' same age, education, work experience, and RFC could perform the following representative occupations: dishwasher, industrial cleaner, bakery racker. (AR 34). After finding the VE's testimony to be consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, the ALJ concluded that, considering Mr. Rodgers' age, education, and transferable work skills, a finding of “not disabled” is appropriate under the framework of section 204.00 of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines. Id. Therefore, the ALJ found Mr. Rodgers has not been disabled since the day he turned 18 through the date of the decision, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924(g) and 416.920(g). Id.

         IV. Analysis

         A. The ALJ's Assessment of Mr. Rodgers' ...


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