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Brownfield v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 22, 2014

CHRIS BROWNFIELD, o/b/o A.M.B. Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, [1] COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION and ORDER OF COURT

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

SYNOPSIS

Pending before the Court are a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings filed by the Plaintiff and a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the Defendant. ECF Nos. [8] and [12]. Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. ECF Nos. [9] and [14]. The Plaintiff also filed a Reply Brief. ECF No. [15] After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am granting Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment ECF No. [8] insofar as Plaintiff has requested a remand, and denying Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. [12], as set forth below.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying an application for supplemental security income brought on behalf of her daughter, a child under the age of 18, pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"). More specifically, On July 20, 2010, Chris Brownfield ("the Mother") protectively filed for supplemental security income on behalf of her daughter, alleging a disability beginning on January 1, 2008. The application was denied and was followed by hearings on January 4, 2012 and March 13, 2012. Both the Mother and the daughter testified at the hearings. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued a written decision denying the claim on April 19, 2012. Following the exhaustion of administrative remedies, the Mother filed this appeal.

II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995), quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Additionally, the Commissioner's findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. §706.

The Social Security Act provides that a child under 18 is "disabled" for purposes of SSI eligibility if 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). The Commissioner follows a three-step sequential process in determining childhood disability: (1) whether the child is doing substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether he has a medically determinable severe impairment; (3) if so, whether the child's severe impairment meets, medically equals, or functionally equals the severity of a set of criteria for an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d), 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. An impairment functionally equals a listed impairment if the child has "marked" limitations[2] in two domains of functioning or an "extreme" limitation[3] in one domain. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926(a). The six domains are: (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 oneself; and (6) health and physical well-being. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1)(i)-(iv). When evaluating the ability to function in each domain, the ALJ considers the following: whether the impairment(s) affect the claimant's functioning and whether the claimant's activities are typical of other children of the same age who do not have impairments; the activities that the claimant is able to perform; activities that the claimant is unable to perform; which of the claimant's activities are limited or restricted compared to other children of the same age who do not have impairments; where the claimant has difficulty independently initiating, sustaining, or completing activities; and what kind of help the claimant needs in order to do activities, including how much and how often help is needed. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(2)(i)-(vi).

In this case, the ALJ found that the Claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activities and has severe impairments.[4] (ALJ's Op., ECF No. [6], p. 18). Nevertheless, she determined that the Claimant did not have an impairment (or combination of impairments) that meets or medically equals the severity of a set of criteria for an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924(d), 416.925 and 416.926. Specifically, The ALJ found that the Claimant experienced "mild limitations in activities of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace; and as for episodes of decompensation, the claimant has experienced no episodes of decompensation." (ALJ's Op., ECF No. [6], p. 8). Additionally, the ALJ concluded that the Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equals the severity of the listings. As a result, the ALJ found that the Claimant was not disabled under the Act. (ALJ's Op., ECF No. [6], p. 18).

B. DISCUSSION

On appeal, the Claimant challenges the ALJ's decision in several respects. First, the Claimant urges that the ALJ failed to give proper consideration to her teachers' opinions. Second, according to the Claimant, the ALJ neglected to follow the treating physician rule. Finally, the Claimant insists that the ALJ did not give any explanation for failing to give the testimony she and her mother offered at the hearing full credibility. I will address the arguments seriatim.

1) The ALJ's Consideration of the Opinions of the Claimant's Teachers

The record contains Teacher Questionnaires completed by the Claimant's 5th and 6th grade teachers, Ms. Herndon and Ms. Bender. These are the types of documents an ALJ should consider. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b)(7)(ii). The Regulations provide that "if you go to school we will ask your teacher(s) about your performance in your activities throughout your school day. We will consider all the evidence we receive from your school, including teacher questionnaires, teacher checklists, group achievement testing, and report cards." 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b)(7)(ii). The Claimant contends that the ALJ failed to give these Questionnaires proper consideration in arriving at her conclusion to deny benefits. Specifically, the Claimant urges that the ALJ failed to weigh the opinions of the teachers pertaining to the Claimant's ability to: (1) acquire and use information; (2) attend and complete tasks; ...


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