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Langley v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

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

October 9, 2018

ROSE LANGLEY, o/b/o D.A.S., Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINSITRATION, Commissioner, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Rose Langley, on behalf of her minor child, D.A.S., appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying an application for Child's Supplemental Security Income. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff timely pursued and exhausted available administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is due to be reversed and remanded.

         I. FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         D.A.S. was four years old at the time the application was filed; he was five at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision. (See R. 25, 37). Plaintiff contends her son was born disabled on May 23, 2010, primarily due to glaucoma and blindness in the right eye. (See R. 163). During the hearing, Plaintiff contended both eyes were at issue, together with intellectual impairments. (R. 44, 46). Also during the hearing, the ALJ effectively amended the disability onset date to June 23, 2014, the date the application was filed. (See R. 25, 50-51).[2]When evaluating the disability of a child, the regulations prescribe a three-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a). The first step requires a determination of whether the child is "doing substantial gainful activity." Id. If he or she is, then the child is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the child is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the ALJ to determine whether he or she suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Id. An impairment is considered "severe" if it causes more than "minimal functional limitations." 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). If the impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a). However, if the impairments are "severe," the third step requires the ALJ to determine if one or more of the impairments meets or equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Part 404. Id. If the child has such an impairment which meets the durational requirement, the ALJ will find the child is disabled. Id. If the child does not meet each of the criteria enumerated in the listings, the ALJ must decide whether the impairment or combination of impairments "functionally equals" the severity of any listed impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d).

         When assessing a child's functional limitations, the ALJ considers all of the relevant factors, such as: how well the child can initiate and sustain activities, how much extra help he or she requires, the effects of structures or supportive settings, how the child functions in school, and the effects of medications or other treatments on the child's health. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a. To determine functional equivalence, the ALJ must evaluate the child's limitations in the following six functional areas, called domains: (1) acquiring and using information; (2) attending and completing tasks; (3) interacting and relating with others; (4) moving about and manipulating objects; (5) the ability to care for himself; and (6) health and physical well-being. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1)(i-vi). An impairment, or combination of impairments, functionally equals a listed impairment if it results in either "marked" limitations in two domains or an "extreme" limitation in one domain.[3] See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found D.A.S. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date of the application. (R. 25). At step two, the ALJ found D.A.S. suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) congenital glaucoma; (2) status post shunt placement and penetrating keratoplasty on the right; (3) Axenfeld-Rieger Syndrome in the right eye; and (4) dense amblyopia in the right eye. (R. 25). Nonetheless, the ALJ determined at step three that these impairments, whether considered singularly or in combination, did not meet or medically equal any listed impairment. (Id.). The ALJ found D.A.S. suffered from "less than marked limitation" in the domains of: (1) acquiring and using information; (2) attending and completing tasks; (3) interacting and relating with others; (4) moving about and manipulating objects; and (5) the ability to care for himself. (R. 27-34). The ALJ found D.A.S. suffered from marked limitation in the domain of health and physical well-being. (R. 34-36). The ALJ concluded by finding D.A.S. had not been disabled since June 23, 2014, the date the application was filed. (R. 36-37).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A 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 Fed.Appx. 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). A 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, a 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 a court finds 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)).

         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 undersigned finds no error with the ALJ's conclusion that D.A.S. did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. However, the ALJ's analysis of D.A.S.'s functional equivalence and treatment of Plaintiff's pain testimony applied incorrect legal standards and are not supported by substantial evidence.

         A. Meeting or Medically Equaling a Listing

          A plaintiff is disabled if his impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). To meet a listing, the plaintiff must "have a diagnosis included in the Listings and must provide medical reports documenting that the conditions meet the specific criteria of the Listings and the duration requirement." Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1224 (11th Cir. 2002) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a)-(d)). "To 'equal' a Listing, the medical findings must be 'at least equal in severity and duration to the listed findings.'" Id. (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526(a)). "For a claimant to show that his impairment matches a listing, it must meet all of the specified medical criteria. An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify." Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990); see also Wilkinson v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 660, 662 (11th Cir.1987) (claimant must "present specific medical findings that meet various tests" to meet a listing). Finally, the Court has an "absolute duty" to consider a combination of impairments in order to determine whether there is medical equivalency to a listing if it is defined in terms of functional criteria. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 533-34 (11th Cir.1993).

         Here, Plaintiff contends D.A.S.'s impairments meet or medically equal three Listings: (1) 112.05D Intellectual Disability; (2) 112.11 Neurodevelopmental Disorders; and (3) 102.00 Special Senses and Speech. (Doc. 15 at 10-14). The ALJ found D.A.S. did not meet Listing 102.02 but did not specifically address the other listings Plaintiff contends apply. (R. 25). As explained below, the ALJ's ...


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