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Tanya L. Bricker v. Michael J. Astrue

December 2, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: McVerry, J.


I. Introduction

Plaintiff, Tanya L. Bricker ("Plaintiff"), brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") which denied her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq.

II. Background

A. Facts

Plaintiff was born on August 5, 1996. (R. 12, 24)*fn1 . At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was in the seventh grade and attending Albert Gallatin North. (R. 25-26). Plaintiff was not enrolled in any special education courses. (Id.). Plaintiff's alleged onset of her disability is July 10, 2007, due to asthma, acid reflux, ear infections, and sore throats. (R. 112, 126). The record reflects that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity. (R. 12).

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff initially filed her application for SSI on July 10, 2007. (R. 112-14). Plaintiff claimed disability as of the date of her application. (Id.). Plaintiff's claim was denied at the initial level of administrative review and, thereafter, Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. (R. 51, 56). An administrative hearing was held on January 8, 2009, before Administrative Law Judge George A. Mills, III ("ALJ"). (R. 20-50). Plaintiff and her mother, Ms. Karen Verbus, testified at the hearing. (R. 24-49).

On March 9, 2009, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision in which he determined that Plaintiff did not have any medically determinable impairments, whether considered individually or in combination, that presented symptoms sufficient to meet or medically equal the severity criteria of any listed impairment. (R. 15-26). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. (R. 26). The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on February 26, 2010, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-4).

On April 7, 2010, Plaintiff filed her Complaint in this Court in which she seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. (Document No. 1). The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (Document Nos. 10 & 13). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred as a matter of law in failing to find that her mental impairment was "severe" within the meaning of the Act. (Document No. 11, 10). Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider evidence of her repeated treatments at hospital emergency rooms. (Document No. 11, 12). The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. (Document No. 14). For the reasons that follow, the Court agrees with the Commissioner and will therefore grant the motion for summary judgment filed by the Commissioner and deny the motion for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff.

III. Legal Analysis

A. Standard of Review

The Act limits judicial review of disability claims to the Commissioner's final decision. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g),1383(c)(3). If the Commissioner's finding is supported by substantial evidence, it is conclusive and must be affirmed by the Court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Schaudeck v. Comm' r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). The Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971); Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). It consists of more than a scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance. Stunkard v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988).

Children seeking SSI benefits must qualify as being disabled under the Act.

Sykes v. Barnhart, 84 Fed. Appx. 210, 212 (3d Cir. 2003). Disability is established when the claimant demonstrates "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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i).

Social Security regulations ("regulations") set forth a three-step sequential evaluation process that the Commissioner must follow to determine childhood disability.

20 C.F.R. § 416.924. When applying the sequential evaluation process, "the burden of proof rests on the claimant at each [of the three] step[s]." R.J. v Astrue, 08-1416, 2009 WL 2413924, at *4 (S.D.Ind. July 24, 2009). To establish disability the claimant must demonstrate: (1) that she was not working; (2) that she had a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments; and (3) that her impairment or combination of impairments met, medically equaled, or functionally equaled the severity of an impairment in the listings. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924.

The regulations provide that to determine whether the child's impairment(s) functionally equal the listings, "[a] child's functional limitations will be evaluated in the following 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 herself or himself; and (6) health and physical well-being." Hairston ...

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