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Sutterfield v. Saul

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

October 25, 2019

RUBY SUTTERFIELD o/b/o D.I.S., a minor, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOHN E. OTT, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Ruby Sutterfield brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application on behalf of her minor great-grandson for Childhood Supplemental Social Security (“SSI”). (Doc. 1).[1] The case has been assigned to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to this court's general order of reference. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court for disposition of the matter. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(a). (Doc. 9). Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On August 9, 2010, Sutterfield filed an application for SSI on behalf of her minor great-grandson (“D.I.S.”). (R. 363, 565-68). The claim was denied initially, and on June 24, 2012, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) found that D.I.S. was not disabled. (R. 441-62). The Appeals Council denied the request for review on December 20, 2012. (R. 463-65). On June 6, 2013, Sutterfield filed an action in federal court seeking review of the denial, and, on August 13, 2015, the court reversed and remanded the decision to the Commissioner for further findings. (R. 469-87). On November 3, 2015, the Appeals Council vacated the final decision of the Commissioner and remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings consistent with the district court order. (R. 488-92).

         While that application was pending review by the federal court, Sutterfield filed another application for SSI on behalf of D.I.S. (R. 490). A favorable determination was issued on November 19, 2013, finding D.I.S. disabled as of June 4, 2013, the date the second application was filed. (Id.). The record was reviewed on July 29, 2015, and it was determined that his disability continued. (Id.). The Appeals Council affirmed the favorable determination but noted that the current claim for SSI required further administrative proceedings for the time period before June 4, 2013. (Id.). The Appeals Council directed the ALJ to afford the opportunity for a hearing, take any further action to complete the administrative record, and issue a new decision for the period before June 4, 2013. (Id.).

         After the hearing on March 24, 2016, (R. 410-40), the ALJ determined that D.I.S. was not disabled for the period from August 9, 2010 until June 4, 2013. (R. 360-80). Sutterfield requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, which declined review on October 30, 2018. (R. 353-59). As a result, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security and is properly before the court.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         D.I.S. was born on October 19, 2009. As discussed above, D.I.S. was found disabled as of June 4, 2013, but Plaintiff alleges he was disabled before that date. (R. 367). The relevant period at issue for the court is from August 9, 2010, the date Plaintiff filed his first SSI application, until June 4, 2013, the date he was determined disabled. As such, he was a newborn/infant when the application was filed and was a preschooler at the time the relevant period for the decision ended. (R. 367). In the application, Plaintiff alleges D.I.S. was disabled due to asthma, vocal cord paralysis and poor muscle development in his legs. (R. 128-40, 144-50, 565, 579-84, 594).

         Following the administrative hearing, the ALJ first determined D.I.S. has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date. (R. 367). The ALJ further found that D.I.S. has the following severe impairments during the period at issue: a history of bilateral congenital vocal cord paralysis with a history of signs and symptoms of chronic stridor, wheezing, and hoarseness; and a history of hypotonia and gross motor delays. (Id.). She also found that D.I.S. did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (R. 369). The ALJ then considered the six functional equivalence domains and found that D.I.S. did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equals the severity of the listings. (R. 369-80). Based on this finding, the ALJ found D.I.S. was not disabled during the time period from August 9, 2010, through June 4, 2013. (R. 380).

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of the court is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1422 (1971); Mitchell v. Comm'r Soc. Sec., 771 F.3d 780, 782 (11th Cir. 2015); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id.

         The court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence. However, it reviews the ALJ's legal conclusions de novo because no presumption of validity attaches to the ALJ's determination of the proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. See Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991). The court must affirm the ALJ's decision if substantial evidence supports it, even if other evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. See Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir.1990)).

         IV. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

         An individual under the age of 18 is considered disabled if he shows 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 that 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). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrated by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). The claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled and is responsible for producing evidence sufficient to support his claim. See Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003).

         For those under the age of 18, a determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a three-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:

(1) Is the child engaged in substantial gainful activity?
(2) Are the child's impairments severe?
(3) Do the child's impairments satisfy or medically equal on of the specific impairments set for in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P App. 1?

See Henry v. Barnhart, 156 Fed.Appx. 171, 173 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a); Wilson v. Apfel, 179 F.3d 1276, ...


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