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Fernandez v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

September 30, 2019

LISETTE FERNANDEZ o/b/o I.F.
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security

          MEMORANDUM

          JOHN R. PADOVA J.

         Plaintiff Lisette Fernandez brought this action on behalf of her minor child, I.F., pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1381(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, Andrew M. Saul (“Commissioner”), [1] denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. After Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of the decision denying her claim for SSI benefits, we referred the matter to Chief United States Magistrate Judge Linda K. Caracappa, who issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) recommending that Plaintiffs’ Request be denied and that judgment be entered in favor of the Commissioner. Plaintiff filed timely objections to the R&R. For the reasons that follow, we overrule Plaintiff’s objections and adopt the R&R in its entirety.[2]

         I. BACKGROUND

         I.F. was born on November 6, 2007 and was five years old on the alleged disability onset date. (R. 255.) Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on January 31, 2013. (R. 253.) The application was denied by the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on October 10, 2014. (R. 118.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council granted Plaintiff’s request for review and remanded to the ALJ for further consideration of whether I.F. had an impairment that resulted in “‘marked’ limitations in two domains of functioning or an ‘extreme’ limitation in one domain.” (R. 138-39.) On February 1, 2017, after holding a hearing at which Plaintiff testified, the ALJ issued a second decision finding that I.F. was not disabled under Section 1614(a)(3)(C) of the Social Security Act since January 31, 2013, the date the application was filed. (R. 7, 10.)

         The Social Security Act provides that a child, i.e., “[a]n individual under the age of 18 . . . is considered disabled . . . if the child has a ‘physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe limitations, and which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.’” Pizarro v. Colvin, 208 F.Supp.3d 669, 672 (E.D. Pa. 2016) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i)). Federal regulations require the Commissioner to use a three-step sequential evaluation process to assess disability claims for children. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a)). In the first step, “the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is presently engaged in substantially gainful activity.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a)). Here, the ALJ found that I.F. had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 31, 2013. (R. 13.)

         At the second step, “the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that is severe.” Pizarro, 208 F.Supp.3d at 672 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a)). Here, the ALJ found that I.F. has two severe impairments: attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”) and oppositional defiant disorder (“ODD”); and one impairment that is not severe: a seizure disorder. (R. 13.)

         At the third step, “the ALJ must determine whether the claimant’s impairment or combination of impairments meet, medically equal, or functionally equal, the severity of any one of the impairments listed in the Appendix.” Pizarro, 208 F.Supp.3d at 672 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924(d), § 416.925; Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1). “If the claimant’s impairment or combination of impairments satisfies the requirements of Step Three and has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of 12 months, the claimant is disabled.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d)(1)). Here, the ALJ found that I.F. “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in [the Appendix], ” (R. 13) and thus turned to whether the impairments are “‘functionally equal’ to any of the listed impairments.” Pizzaro, 208 F.Supp.3d at 673 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a)).

         “In determining whether a child's impairment or impairments are functionally equivalent to the severity of any of the listed impairments, the ALJ must consider the extent to which the alleged impairment limits the child’s ability to function in [six domains].” Id. The six domains are: “(i) Acquiring and using information; (ii) Attending and completing tasks; (iii) Interacting and relating with others; (iv) Moving about and manipulating objects; (v) Caring for oneself; and (vi) Health and physical well-being.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1). A child’s “impairment(s) functionally equals the listings” if the child has “‘marked’ limitations in two of the domains . . . or an ‘extreme’ limitation in one domain.” 20 C.F.R. 416.926(d). The ALJ determined that I.F. “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equals the severity of the listings” and, therefore, has not been disabled since the application was filed. (R. 14, 23.)

         Plaintiff filed a request for review of this decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on December 19, 2017, making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (R. 1-3.) Plaintiff subsequently filed the instant action, requesting review of the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner’s final decision should be reversed for five reasons: (1) the ALJ’s determination that I.F.’s seizure disorder is not severe is not supported by substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ erred in finding that I.F. did not comply with her prescribed treatment; (3) the ALJ’s finding that I.F. has a less than marked limitation in the domain of Attending and Completing Tasks is not supported by substantial evidence; (4) the ALJ’s finding that I.F. has a less than marked limitation in the domain of Interacting and Relating with Others is not supported by substantial evidence; and (5) the ALJ’s finding that I.F. has a less than marked limitation in the domain of Acquiring and Using Information is not supported by substantial evidence.

         In her R&R, Chief Magistrate Judge Caracappa recommends, inter alia, as follows: (1) there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ’s determination that I.F.’s seizure disorder is not severe (R&R at 14-15); (2) the ALJ’s finding with respect to I.F.’s non-compliance with prescribed treatment was proper and supported by substantial evidence (id. at 19); (3) the ALJ’s finding that that I.F. has less than marked limitations in the domain of Attending and Completing Tasks is supported by substantial evidence in the record (id. at 23); (4) the ALJ’s finding that I.F. has less than marked limitations in the domain of Interacting and Relating with Others is supported by substantial evidence in the record (id. at 25-26); and (5) the ALJ’s finding that I.F. has less than marked limitations in the domain of Acquiring and Using Information is supported by substantial evidence in the record (id. at 28). Plaintiff has filed objections to all of the Magistrate Judge’s recommendations, except for the recommendation that the ALJ’s finding with respect to I.F.’s non-compliance with prescribed treatment was proper and supported by substantial evidence.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         We review de novo those portions of a Magistrate Judge’s report and recommendation to which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). We “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the [Magistrate Judge’s] findings or recommendations.” Id.

         We review the ALJ’s decision to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence on the record. Hagans v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 694 F.3d 287, 292 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999)). Substantial evidence “means- and means only-‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938); and citing Dickinson v. Zurko, 527 U.S. 150, 153 (1999)). The Supreme Court has explained that “the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high. Substantial evidence . . . is ‘more a mere scintilla.’” Id. (quoting Consol. Edison, 305 U.S. at 229; and citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)); see also Jesurum v. Sec’y of U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995) (explaining that substantial evidence “is less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla” (citation omitted)). “‘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.’” Hagans, 694 F.3d at 292 (quoting Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001)). When we conduct our review, we “‘are not permitted to re-weigh the evidence or impose [our] own factual determinations.’” Horst v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 551 Fed.App’x 41, 45 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Chandler v. Comm’r of Social Sec., 667 F.3d 356, 359 (3d Cir. 2011)).

         III. ...


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