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Shingles v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

March 26, 2019

ANGELINE SHINGLES o/b/o T.S.S., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          STEPHEN M. DOYLE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Angeline Shingles (“Plaintiff”) filed an application for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) on behalf of T.S.S., a child under age 18, with an alleged disability onset date of January 1, 2009. (R. 10). Plaintiff's application was initially denied on July 14, 2014. Id. Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. Id. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on June 14, 2016, and ultimately denied Plaintiff's claim. (R. 10-24). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 27, 2017. (R. 1-6). As a result, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). Id. Judicial review proceeds pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both parties have consented to the conduct of all proceedings and entry of a final judgment by the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. Pl.'s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. 11); Def.'s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. 10). After careful scrutiny of the record and briefs, and for reasons herein explained, the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision is to be AFFIRMED.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is a limited one. The Court's sole function is to determine whether the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. See Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). “The Social Security Act mandates that ‘findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.'” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §405(g)). Thus, this Court must find the Commissioner's decision conclusive if it is supported by substantial evidence. Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla-i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)); Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560 (citing Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982)).

         If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the district court will affirm, even if the court would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact, and even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003); Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986)). The Court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560 (citing Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). The Court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner], ” but rather it “must defer to the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1997) (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239).

         The Court will also reverse a Commissioner's decision on plenary review if the decision applies incorrect law, or if the decision fails to provide the district court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Keeton v. Dep't of Health and Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994) (citing Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991)). There is no presumption that the Commissioner's conclusions of law are valid. Id.; Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting MacGregor, 786 F.2d at 1053).

         II. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

         “An individual under the age of 18 shall be considered disabled . . . if that individual 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i); 20 C.F.R. § 416.906 (same). The individual who seeks Social Security disability benefits must prove that he or she is disabled. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(H)(i) (rendering the provisions from 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5) applicable to SSI disability applications, which places burden on claimant to prove disability); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a).

         “Federal regulations set forth the process by which the [Social Security Administration] determines if a child is disabled and thereby eligible for disability benefits.” Shinn ex rel. Shinn v. Comm'r, 391 F.3d 1276, 1278-1279 (11th Cir.2004). Under the regulations, this process begins with the Commissioner determining whether the child is “doing substantial gainful activity.” If the child is performing substantial gainful activity, the child is considered “not disabled” and is ineligible for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a), (b).

         If the child is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner next considers whether the child's “physical or mental impairment(s)” alone or in combination with other impairments are severe. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a), (c). An impairment will be considered in a disability application only if it arises from “anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.908. Thus, an impairment “must be established by medical evidence.” Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.913(a) (the Commissioner “need[s] evidence from acceptable medical sources to establish whether you have a medically determinable impairment(s)”). In contrast, non-medical evidence, including the testimony of “[e]ducational personnel” and “parents and other caregivers, siblings, other relatives, friends, neighbors, and clergy, ” may be used to demonstrate that a child's impairment is severe. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.913(d)(2), (4), 416.924a(a)(2).

         If the child has a severe impairment or impairments, the Commissioner next assesses whether the impairment “causes marked and severe functional limitations” for the child. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.911(b), 416.924(d). The Commissioner uses objective criteria listed in the Code of Federal Regulations (“C.F.R.”) to determine whether the impairment causes severe and marked limitations. “The C.F.R. contains a Listing of Impairments [“the Listings, ” found at 20 C.F.R. § 404 app.] specifying almost every sort of medical problem (“impairment”) from which a person can suffer, sorted into general categories.” Shinn ex rel. Shinn, 391 F.3d at 1278 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(a)). “For each impairment, the Listings discuss various limitations on a person's abilities that [the] impairment may impose. Limitations appearing in these listings are considered ‘marked and severe.'” Id. 23 A child's impairment will cause “marked and severe functional limitations” if those limitations “meet[ ], medically equal[ ], or functionally equal[ ] the [L]istings.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.911(b)(1); see also §§ 416.902, 416.924(a). The limitations “meet” a Listing if the child actually suffers from the limitations specified in the Listings for that child's severe impairment. The limitations “medically equal” a Listing if the child's limitations “are at least of equal medical significance to those of a listed impairment.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926(a)(2).

         Finally, if the limitations resulting from a child's particular impairment are not comparable to those specified in the Listings, the Commissioner examines whether the impairment is “functionally equivalent” to those in the Listings. Shinn ex rel. Shinn, 391 F.3d at 1279. To make this determination, the Commissioner examines the degree to which the child's limitations interfere with the child's normal life activities. The C.F.R. specifies six major domains of life:

(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 [one]self; and
(vi) Health and physical well-being.

20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1). The C.F.R. contains various “benchmarks” that children should have achieved by certain ages in each of these life domains. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(g)-(l ). A child's impairment is “of listing-level severity, ” and so “functionally equals the listings, ” if as a result of the limitations stemming from that impairment the child has “‘marked' limitations in two of the domains [above], or an ‘extreme' limitation in one domain.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(d); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(a).

         If the limitations stemming from a child's severe impairment meet, medically equal, or functionally equal the limitations specified in the Listings, the ALJ then examines whether the impairment “meets the duration requirement.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a). An impairment meets this duration requirement if it “[is] expected to cause death or . . . has lasted or can be ...


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