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Watters ex rel. L.B. v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 26, 2014

ROGER WATTERS on behalf of L.B., Plaintiff,


CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER, Chief District Judge.

The above-captioned action seeks review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") decision denying plaintiff Roger Watters's ("Watters") claim for supplemental security income on behalf of his minor son, L.B. Presently before the court is Watters's appeal from an administrative law judge's ("ALJ") decision upholding the denial of social security benefits. (Doc. 1). For the reasons that follow, the court will deny the appeal and affirm the ALJ's decision.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

Watters's son, L.B., was born on October 1, 2000, and he was 10 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision.[1] (Doc. 8-2 at 20, 37).[2] L.B. lives with Watters, who has primary custody, and his mother has visitation rights on the weekends. ( Id. at 22, 37).

On February 2, 2010, L.B.'s mother protectively[3] filed an initial application for supplemental security income[4] on behalf of L.B. for disability since January 2, 2006.[5] ( Id. at 17). The Commissioner denied the initial application for social security benefits on September 23, 2010. (Id.) Watters subsequently filed a written request for a hearing. (Id.) On August 18, 2011, Watters appeared and testified on behalf of L.B. before an ALJ at a hearing held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Id.)

Watters alleges that L.B. suffers from the following disabilities: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"), oppositional defiant disorder ("ODD"), and mood disorder. ( Id. at 20; see Doc. 8-6 at 136). Prior to moving in with Watters, L.B. lived with his mother, but his behavior deteriorated rapidly in late 2009 when he became increasingly defiant at home and at school. (Doc. 8-2 at 22, 37-38). At the hearing, Watters testified that L.B. was acting out at his mother's home by throwing tantrums and becoming angry and aggressive. ( Id. at 42). On January 18, 2010, L.B. was voluntarily sent to Philhaven - York Child Day Hospital ("Philhaven"), which is a partial hospitalization program for children with behavioral problems in a normal classroom setting or at home. ( Id. at 41-42; Doc. 8-6 at 139). L.B. was discharged from Philhaven on April 1, 2010 into the custody of Watters. (Doc. 8-2 at 23). Since his discharge, L.B. has participated in outpatient therapy approximately once a week with Cathy Snelbaker, L.C.S.W., from T.W. Ponessa & Associates Counseling Services, Inc. ( Id. at 23, 39, 43).

At the August 2011 hearing, Watters testified that L.B. had just completed fourth grade. ( Id. at 37). Although L.B. began fourth grade in regular classes, Watters stated that L.B. became increasingly defiant of his teachers, cried and pouted, crawled under desks, and banged his head on desks, the floor, or the walls. ( Id. at 38). As a result, L.B. was placed in an emotional support classroom, and he continued his therapy sessions with Ms. Snelbaker. ( Id. at 38-39). Watters reported that L.B.'s on-going psychotherapy and current medication, Concerta, has helped manage his symptoms. ( Id. at 39). Therefore, L.B. would be in regular classes for fifth grade with access to a teacher's aide if he needs to leave the classroom. ( Id. at 41).

At home, Watters noted that L.B.'s behavior is "fairly good" when L.B. is on his medication. ( Id. at 39-40). L.B. completes his chores, has some friends, and enjoys riding his bicycle, skateboarding, and playing video games. ( Id. at 40-41). L.B. also takes care of himself by bathing and dressing on his own and taking school transportation. ( Id. at 42). However, Watters stated that L.B. appears depressed after visitations with his mother; he slumps in his seat and does not want to talk or do anything. ( Id. at 44).

On August 26, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying L.B.'s claim for supplemental security income. (See id. at 14-32). Watters appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Counsel on September 6, 2011, (see id. at 10-13), and the Appeals Counsel denied the appeal on February 1, 2013. (See id. at 1-6).

On March 26, 2013, Watters, through counsel, filed a complaint in the instant action to appeal the final administrative decision denying his son's application for social security benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1383(c)(3).[6] (Doc. 1). On June 28, 2013, the Commissioner filed an answer (Doc. 7) to Watters's complaint and also provided the administrative record for the court's review. (Doc. 8). Upon further briefing by the parties, (Docs. 11, 14, 15), the instant action is ripe for disposition.

II. Standard of Review

In reviewing a social security appeal, the court may conduct a plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner. See Poulos v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 474 F.3d 88, 91 (3d Cir. 2007); Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin. , 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999); Krysztoforski v. Chater , 55 F.3d 857, 858 (3d Cir. 1995). The court's review of findings of fact pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), however, is limited to determining whether the findings are supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Knepp v. Apfel , 204 F.3d 78, 83 (3d Cir. 2000); Brown v. Bowen , 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988). Factual findings which are supported by substantial evidence must be upheld. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart , 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005) (stating that courts may not weigh the evidence or substitute its own conclusion for those of the fact-finder); Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001) ("Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, we are bound by those findings, even if we would have decided the factual inquiry differently."); Cotter v. Harris , 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981) ("Findings of fact by the Secretary must be accepted as conclusive by a reviewing court if supported by substantial evidence.").

Substantial evidence "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Pierce v. Underwood , 487 U.S. 552, 564-65 (1988) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B. , 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Johnson , 529 F.3d at 200; Hartranft v. Apfel , 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). The Third Circuit has described substantial evidence as more than a mere scintilla, but substantial evidence may be less than a preponderance of the evidence. Brown , 845 F.2d at 1213. In an adequately developed factual record, substantial evidence may be "something less than the weight of the evidence, 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." Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n , 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).

Substantial evidence exists only "in relationship to all the other evidence in the record, " Cotter , 642 F.2d at 706, and "must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B. , 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1971). "When a conflict in the evidence exists, the ALJ may choose whom to credit but cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason.'" Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999) (quoting Mason v. Shalala , 994 F.2d 1058, 1066 (3d Cir. 1993)). The ALJ must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin. , 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3d Cir. 2000); Cotter , 642 F.2d at 706-707. Therefore, the court must scrutinize the record as a whole on appeal. Smith v. Califano , 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981); Dobrowolsky v. Califano , 606 F.2d 403, 407 (3d Cir. 1979).

III. Sequential Evaluation Process

To receive disability benefits, a plaintiff under the age of 18 must demonstrate that he or she "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).

An ALJ utilizes a three-step sequential evaluation process in assessing a minor plaintiff's claim for supplemental security income. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. This process requires the ALJ to consider, in sequence, whether a plaintiff (1) is engaging in "substantial gainful activity, "[7] (2) has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is "severe, "[8] and (3) has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that meets, medically equals, or functionally equals the requirements of a "listed impairment."[9] Id . § 416.924(a).

To determine whether an impairment functionally equals a listed impairment, the ALJ considers how the plaintiff functions 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 himself; and (6) health and physical well-being. Id . § 416.926a(b)(1). An impairment functionally equals a listed impairment when the ...

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