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Williams v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

September 13, 2017

HAROLD WILLIAMS, o.b.o. R.W., Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          L. Scott Coogler United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, R.W., a minor, by and through her father, Harold Williams, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for child's Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). The plaintiff timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).

         Plaintiff was thirteen years old and had completed the seventh grade at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) hearing. (Tr. at 18, 36.) Plaintiff alleged disability based on a learning disability. (Tr. at 174.)

         The Commissioner has developed a specific sequential evaluation process for determining whether a child claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924; Shinn ex rel. Shinn v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 391 F.3d 1276, 1278-79 (11th Cir. 2004) (describing the process for determining disability for children). The first step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a), (b). At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a), (c). At step three, the ALJ determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment in the Listings or functionally equals the Listings. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.902, 416.911(b) 416.924(a-d); see also 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. A child's functional limitations are evaluated under six broad functional areas called domains: (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 yourself; and (vi) health and physical wellbeing. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1). To establish functional equivalency, a claimant must demonstrate her impairments resulted in “marked” limitations in two domains of functioning or an “extreme” limitation in one domain. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a), (d). Functional equivalence is not with respect to a particular listing, but to the Listings overall. See 20 C.F.R. 416.924(d)(1). If functional equivalency is not established, an ALJ will find the claimant not disabled under the Act. See id.

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that the plaintiff has not engaged in SGA since the date the application was filed. (Tr. at 16.) He found that she had the following severe impairments: learning disorder and depression, and the following non-severe impairment: obesity. (Tr. at 16-17.) However, he concluded that these impairments neither meet, medically equal, nor functionally equal the severity of the Listings, evaluating Plaintiff's abilities under each of the six domains as described above. (Tr. at 17.) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff has not been disabled as defined in the Social Security Act since November 30, 2012, the date the SSI application was filed. (Tr. at 25).

         II. Standard of Review

         This Court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Stone v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 544 F. App'x 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). This Court gives deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner, provided those findings are supported by substantial evidence, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996).

         Nonetheless, this Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004)). “The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this Court finds that the proof preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, it must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400 (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)). That said, although the court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its own judgement for that of the commissioner, the commissioners conclusions of law are subject to denovo review. See Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007).

         However, no decision is automatic, for “despite th[e] deferential standard [for review of claims], it is imperative that th[is] Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached.” Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing Arnold v. Heckler, 732 F.2d 881, 883 (11th Cir. 1984)). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).

         III. Discussion

         The plaintiff alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for three reasons. First, she believes that the ALJ erred in finding her father's testimony not entirely credible. Second, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in finding she did not meet, equal, or functionally equal the Listings. Third, she argues that the ALJ should have further developed the record by re-contacting Quality of Life Health Services, Inc., for additional information about her impairments.

         A. Credibility Determination of Father's Testimony

         In this case, the child did not testify. Her father testified as follows: his daughter suffers from depression; she has low Global Assessment of Functioning(“GAF”) scores; she has completed seventh grade and has been promoted to eighth grade; she repeated kindergarten; at the beginning of the school year, she was making D's and F's; he has to stand over her to make sure she does her homework; she has chores she has to do at home, but she doesn't do them; she has friends that come over and spend the night, but she will isolate herself from the friend; she has had disciplinary reports from school; she doesn't follow directions in the hallway, she is tardy, and she got into fights; she is in special education classes; she is unable to read and is unable to count money; she can take care of personal hygiene needs, but she has to be reminded to brush her hair and ...

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