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Anna Hunter O/B/O E.J v. Michael J. Astrue

August 9, 2011

ANNA HUNTER O/B/O E.J.,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eduardo C. Robreno, J.

MEMORANDUM

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Anna Hunter ("Plaintiff") brings this social security review action on behalf of her minor son E.J., who was denied benefits following a January 5, 2009 hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Plaintiff argues that E.J. is entitled to benefits because his impairments are functionally equivalent to a listed impairment due to marked limitations in

(1) interacting and relating with others; and (2) caring for yourself. The Commissioner disagrees, urging that the ALJ's determination to the contrary is supported by substantial evidence.

As set forth below, Plaintiff's request for review will be denied and the ALJ's decision affirmed.

II. DISCUSSION

Broadly speaking, an ALJ uses a three-part analysis to determine whether a child is disabled for the purpose of receiving social security benefits. See Valez ex rel. J.M.A. v. Astrue, No. 10-2681, 2011 WL 1248707, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 4, 2011), report and recommendation adopted, 2011 WL 1235596 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 4, 2011). First, the ALJ considers whether the child is working. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b). Next, the ALJ considers whether the child has a medically determinable severe impairment or combination of impairments. See id. § 416.924(c). Finally, the ALJ considers whether the child's impairments "meet, medically equal, or functionally equal [an impairment in] the listings." See id. § 416.924(d).

A. The ALJ's Decision Applying the first two steps of this analysis, the ALJ found that E.J. had never engaged in substantial gainful activity, and had three medically determinable severe impairments.*fn1 (R. 25.) As to the third step, the ALJ concluded that E.J.'s impairments did not meet or medically equal an impairment cited in the listings. (Id.) Therefore, the ALJ analyzed whether E.J.'s medically determinable severe impairments or the combination thereof functionally equaled a listed impairment. See Valez, 2011 WL 1248707, at *1 ("Where a child does not meet or equal a listing criteria, his impairment can be found to be functionally equivalent to a listed impairment . . . .").

This inquiry, as the ALJ accurately summarized, requires consideration of the claimant's functioning in 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 yourself; and (6) health and physical well-being. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1). A child's impairments functionally equal a listed impairment if the child has a "marked" limitation in two domains or an "extreme" limitation in any one of the six. See id. § 416.926a(a). Evaluating the record before her, the ALJ concluded that E.J. had less than marked limitations in four of the six domains, and no limitation in two.*fn2 Consequently, the ALJ determined that E.J. was not entitled to benefits.

B. Analysis Plaintiff does not challenge the majority of the ALJ's findings and conclusions. Instead, Plaintiff simply argues that the ALJ erred in finding that E.J. has less than marked limitations in (1) interacting and relating with others; and (2) caring for yourself. According to Plaintiff, E.J. is entitled to an award of benefits because he has marked limitations in both domains.

1. Standard of Review

In considering Plaintiff's arguments, the Court's role is limited; it may not independently weigh the evidence or substitute its own conclusions for those reached by the ALJ. See Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Instead, the Court must review the factual findings presented in order to determine whether they are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence constitutes that which a "reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 552 (internal marks omitted). "It is 'more than a mere scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence.'" Id. (quoting Ginsburg v. Richardson, 436 F.2d 1146, 1148 (3d Cir. 1971)). If the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Court may not set it aside even if the Court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. See Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999); see also Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 552 ("In the process of reviewing the record for substantial evidence, we may not 'weigh the evidence or substitute [our own] conclusions for those of the fact-finder.'" (quoting Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992))).

2. Application

As noted, Plaintiff contends that E.J.'s impairments functionally equal a listed impairment because E.J. has marked limitations in two of the six domains. A marked limitation is defined as a limitation "that is 'more than moderate' but 'less than extreme.'" 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i). It exists "in a domain when [a child's] impairment(s) interferes seriously with [his or her] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities," id., as compared to other children without the claimant's impairments, see id. § 416.926a(f)(1) ("When we consider whether you have ...


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