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Walla v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

October 17, 2014

KAREN WALLA, Plaintiff,


DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

Plaintiff, on behalf of her minor child, filed an application for supplemental social security income, alleging disability based on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Her claim was denied initially upon hearing before an ALJ, at which Plaintiff was not represented by counsel. Plaintiff, again proceeding pro se, now appeals the Commissioner's decision. For the following reason, Plaintiff's Motion will be granted, and Defendant's denied. This matter will be remanded for further proceedings.



Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) 6 and 1383(c)(3) 7. Section 405(g) permits a district court to review the transcripts and records upon which a determination of the Commissioner is based, and the court will review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. §706. When reviewing a decision, the district court's role is limited to determining whether the record contains substantial evidence to support an ALJ's findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart , 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate" to support a conclusion. Ventura v. Shalala , 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)). If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson , 402 U.S. at 390.

A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision, or re-weigh the evidence of record; the court can only judge the propriety of the decision with reference to the grounds invoked by the Commissioner when the decision was rendered. Palmer v. Apfel , 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998); S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp. , 332 U.S. 194, 196-97, 67 S.Ct. 1575, 91 L.Ed. 1995 (1947). I cannot affirm administrative action by substituting what I think is a satisfactory explanation. Orabi v. AG of the United States , 738 F.3d 535, 539 (3d Cir. 2014). Otherwise stated, "I may not weigh the evidence or substitute my own conclusion for that of the ALJ. I must defer to the ALJ's evaluation of evidence, assessment of the credibility of witnesses, and reconciliation of conflicting expert opinions. If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, I am bound by those findings, even if I would have decided the factual inquiry differently." Brunson v. Astrue , 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55457 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 14, 2011) (citations omitted).

Pertinent here, pro se submissions are to be construed liberally. Ray v. Colvin, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25891, at *12 (D.N.J. Feb. 28, 2014). Where a claimant is pro se, the ALJ has a heightened duty to help develop the administrative record, and "must scrupulously and conscientiously probe into, inquire of, and explore for all the relevant facts." Reefer v. Barnhart , 326 F.3d 376, 380 (3d Cir. 2003); Dobrowolsky v. Califano , 606 F.2d 403, 407 (3d Cir. 1979).


The hearing before the ALJ took place on December 9, 2011. The ALJ's decision was dated January 5, 2012. Claimant was born on November 21, 2002, making her 9 years old at the time of the hearing. Plaintiff's present pro se submission indicates that her daughter rides a special bus to school, has in-home aid for behavioral and motor skills, has a difficult time getting along with others, and has no friends, and generally struggles in various ways. Plaintiff raises no particular argument regarding the ALJ's decision, but cannot understand, under the circumstances, why her daughter was denied benefits.


The record reflects claimant's near-constant and longtime involvement with a broad array of child and social services, including special education, behavioral health rehabilitation services, outpatient psychiatric services, occupational therapy, and a special therapeutic summer program. The record contains multiple psychiatric and other evaluations, including a July 21, 2010 evaluation signed by Dr. William Kohler, a psychologist, and counselor Nicole Drake; an October 28, 2010 evaluation report by Dr. Robert Washek, a psychologist; treatment notes, plans, and evaluations from Dr. Charles Joy, from the time period between March, 2009 to March, 2011; a report dated November 23, 2010 from agency consulting examiner Dr. Michael Thayer; a May 25, 2011 evaluation by Dr. Michael Skarlinski, a psychologist; and an occupational therapy assessment by therapist Mary Anderson, dated September 13, 2011.

Dr. Thayer noted diagnostic impressions of ADHD, provisional ODD, and significant psychosocial problems, including those in the nature of social skills deficit, significant learning difficulties. After a May 26, 2011 evaluation, Dr. Skarlinski noted that claimant becomes verbally and physically aggressive, argumentative, challenging, restless, easily bored, and tests limits. She has difficulty following directions and needs repeated instruction. He observed that she demonstrates impulsive and unsafe behaviors, and is disruptive in public places. Dr. Skarlinski assigned a GAF of 46, and diagnosed claimant with ODD and ADHD.[1] In 2009, Dr. Washek diagnosed claimant with Disruptive Behavior Disorder, and assigned a GAF of 55, and discussed claimant's physically aggressive behaviors at school. In a March, 2010 evaluation, Dr. Joy assigned a GAF of 60, and prescribed Adderall. He also diagnosed her with ADHD and borderline intellectual functioning. Dr. Drake diagnosed her, in July, 2010, with disruptive behavior disorder and ADHD, with a GAF of 46. These medical opinions are supplemented by statements or testimony from Plaintiff's teachers, family members, and participants in her individualized educational plan ("IEP"), detailing numerous behavioral, social, learning, safety awareness, and motor difficulties.


I note several omissions from the ALJ's decision. For example, the records before the ALJ reflected a diagnosis of ADHD, a diagnosis of ODD, various developmental delays, and an IQ of 68. Moreover, at the hearing, claimant's mother testified that her daughter had ADHD, oppositional behavior disorder, and developmental delays.[2] In his decision, the ALJ considered Listing 122.11, for ADHD, and determined that claimant did not meet that listing. He did not, however, take note of claimant's IQ scores of 68 to 71, or consider Listing 112.05D, which addresses mental retardation.[3] Likewise, the ALJ failed to consider Listing 12.08, which might encompass ODD or oppositional behavioral disorder. See O'Brian v. Astrue, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66743 (N.D. Miss. 2011). While the ALJ may well have had good reason for failing to refer to Listings other than 122.11, I cannot review those reasons in the absence of explanation. See Davis v. Colvin, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140171, at **26-27 (E.D. Wisc. Oct. 2, 2014). A reasoned explanation regarding the Listings is required to allow meaningful ...

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