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Horne v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

February 15, 2017

ANGEL L. HORNE o/b/o, K.L. HORNE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Joi Elizabeth Peake United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Angel L. Horne (“Plaintiff”), on behalf of her minor child K.L. Horne (“K.L.H.”), brought this action pursuant to Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), as amended (42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Child Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed her application for Supplemental Security Income on April 24, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2012. (Tr. at 14, 61, 127-35.)[2] Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. at 61-92.) Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. at 93-94.) On March 5, 2014, both Plaintiff and K.L.H. appeared and testified at the subsequent hearing. (Tr. at 14.) Although the ALJ informed Plaintiff of her daughter's right to representation, Plaintiff chose to proceed without the assistance of an attorney or other representative. (Tr. at 33-37.) The ALJ ultimately issued a decision finding K.L.H not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 14-27), and on October 20, 2015, the Appeals Council denied review, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review (Tr. at 1-5).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal law “authorizes judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits.” Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, “the scope of [the] review of [such an administrative] decision . . . is extremely limited.” Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). “The courts are not to try the case de novo.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, “a reviewing court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ [underlying the denial of benefits] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal brackets omitted).

         “Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1993) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). “If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.” Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “In reviewing for substantial evidence, the court should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ].” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. “The issue before [the reviewing court], therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [the claimant] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).

         In undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that in administrative proceedings, “[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability.” Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). A child under the age of 18 qualifies as disabled 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. 20 C.F.R. § 416.906. More specifically, the ALJ must follow a three-step sequential evaluation process to consider whether the child in question (1) has engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; and (3) has an impairment that meets, medically equals, or functionally equals a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a).

         At the third step, in determining whether a child's impairment is functionally equivalent to a listed impairment, the ALJ considers how the child 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. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1). An impairment or combination of impairments functionally equals a listed impairment if it results in “marked” limitations in two domains of functioning or an “extreme” limitation in one domain. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a), (d). A child has a “marked” limitation in a domain when the impairment “interferes seriously with [her] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i). A marked limitation “is ‘more than moderate' but ‘less than extreme.' It is the equivalent of the functioning we would expect to find on standardized testing with scores that are at least two, but less than three, standard deviations below the mean.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i). A child has an “extreme” limitation in a domain if her impairment interferes “very seriously” with her ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities, and is the equivalent of functioning that would be expected on standardized testing with scores that are at least three standard deviations below the mean. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(3). For each of the six domains, the regulations provide descriptions of relevant skills and their applications for various age groups, e.g., preschool children, school-age children, and adolescents, as well as examples of limited functioning within each domain. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926(g)-(1).

         III. DISCUSSION

         In the present case, the ALJ found that K.L.H., a minor child, had never worked, and that she therefore met her burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. At step two, the ALJ further determined that K.L.H. suffered from the following severe impairments:

attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder [(“ADHD”)], borderline intellectual functioning, phonological disorder, and disruptive behavior disorder.

(Tr. at 17.) The ALJ found at step three that none of these impairments met or medically equaled a disability listing. (Tr. at 17.) The ALJ then conducted a detailed analysis as to whether K.L.H.'s impairments, singly or in combination, functionally equaled the severity of the listings. Specifically, based on the requirements of 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a, the ALJ assessed K.L.H.'s functioning in the 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 herself, and (6) health and physical well-being. (Tr. at 17-27.) The ALJ concluded that K.L.H. did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that resulted in either “marked” limitations ...


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