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Andujar v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

August 15, 2019

DANNY ANDUJAR O/B/O D.A., a minor, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Nancy G. Edmunds United States District Judge

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Dkts. 12, 13)

          STEPHANIE DAWKINS DAVIS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         A. Proceedings in this Court

         On August 6, 2018, plaintiff, who is the father of D.A., a minor child, filed the instant suit. (Dkt. 1). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 72.1(b)(3), District Judge Nancy G. Edmunds referred this matter to the undersigned for the purpose of reviewing the Commissioner's unfavorable decision denying plaintiff's claim for supplemental security income childhood disability benefits. (Dkt. 3). This matter is currently before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Dkt. 12, 13).

         B. Administrative Proceedings

         Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income childhood disability benefits on January 28, 2016, on behalf of his minor child, D.A., alleging disability beginning on July 8, 2011. (Tr. 15).[1] The claim was initially disapproved by the Commissioner on June 10, 2016. Plaintiff requested a hearing and on May 25, 2017, plaintiff and D.A. appeared, with counsel, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Therese Tobin, who considered the case de novo. (Tr. 31-52). In a decision dated November 7, 2017, the ALJ found that D.A. was not disabled. (Tr. 12-27). Plaintiff requested a review of this decision, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council, on June 11, 2018, denied plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-6); Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 543-44 (6th Cir. 2004).

         For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be DENIED, that defendant's motion for summary judgment be GRANTED, and that the findings of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         II. ALJ FINDINGS

         The claimant, D.A., born July 8, 2011, was a preschooler on November 28, 2016, the date the application was filed, and was a school-age child on the date of the decision. (Tr. 18). The claim for disability on D.A.'s behalf is based on an intellectual disorder, a speech and language delay, autism-spectrum disorder, and asthma. (Tr. 18).

         At Step I of the three-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that D.A. has never engaged in substantial gainful activity. (Tr. 18). At Step II, the ALJ found that D.A. has an intellectual disorder, a speech and language delay, autism-spectrum disorder, and asthma, which she found to be severe impairments that caused more than minimal functional limitations. Id. At Step III, the ALJ found that D.A. did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the Listings or that functionally equaled the Listings. (Tr. 18-27). In denying the claim, the ALJ found that D.A. did not meet or equal Listing 112.05 (Intellectual Disability) or 112.10 (Autism Spectrum Disorder). (Tr. 18). The ALJ went on to evaluate D.A.'s degree of limitation in each of the six functional equivalence domains and concluded that he had a “marked” limitation in the domain of acquiring or using information, but no marked or extreme limitations in the other five broad functional domains and thus did not functionally equal a listed impairment. (Tr. 19-27). The ALJ thus determined that D.A. was not disabled from November 28, 2016, through the date of the decision. (Tr. 27).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         In enacting the social security system, Congress created a two-tiered system in which the administrative agency handles claims, and the judiciary merely reviews the agency determination for exceeding statutory authority or for being arbitrary and capricious. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521 (1990). The administrative process itself is multifaceted in that a state agency makes an initial determination that can be appealed first to the agency itself, then to an ALJ, and finally to the Appeals Council. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137 (1987). If a claimant finds no relief during this administrative review process, the claimant may file an action in federal district court. Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 537 (6th Cir.1986).

         This Court has original jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review is limited in that the court “must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.” Longworth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). In deciding whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, “we do not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence, or decide questions of credibility.” Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007); Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). “It is of course for the ALJ, and not the reviewing court, to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, including that of the claimant.” Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 247 (6th Cir. 2007); Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 475 (6th Cir. 2003) (an “ALJ is not required to accept a claimant's subjective complaints and may . . . consider the credibility of a claimant when making a determination of disability.”); Walters, 127 F.3d at 531 (“Discounting credibility to a certain degree is appropriate where an ALJ finds contradictions among medical reports, claimant's testimony, and other evidence.”). “However, the ALJ is not free to make credibility determinations based solely upon an ‘intangible or intuitive notion about an individual's credibility.'” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 247, quoting Soc. Sec. Rul. 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, *4.

         If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Therefore, this Court may not reverse the Commissioner's decision merely because it disagrees or because “there exists in the record substantial evidence to support a different conclusion.” McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006); Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (en banc). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241; Jones, 336 F.3d at 475. “The substantial evidence standard presupposes that there is a ‘zone of choice' within which the Commissioner may proceed without interference from the courts.” Felisky v. Bowen, 35 F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted) (citing Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545).

         The scope of this Court's review is limited to an examination of the record only. Bass, 499 F.3d at 512-13; Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 357 (6th Cir. 2001). When reviewing the Commissioner's factual findings for substantial evidence, a reviewing court must consider the evidence in the record as a whole, including evidence which might subtract from its weight. Wyatt v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992). “Both the court of appeals and the district court may look to any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the Appeals Council.” Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 535 (6th Cir. 2001). There is no requirement, however, that either the ALJ or the reviewing court discuss every piece of evidence in the administrative record. Kornecky v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 167 Fed.Appx. 496, 508 (6th Cir. 2006) (“[a]n ALJ can consider all the evidence without directly addressing in his written decision every piece of evidence submitted by a party.”) (internal citation marks omitted); see also Van Der Maas v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 198 Fed.Appx. 521, 526 (6th Cir. 2006).

         B. Legal Standards - Eligibility for SSI Childhood Disability Benefits

         A child will be considered disabled if he has a “medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(I). To determine whether a child's impairments result in marked and severe limitations, Social Security Administration (SSA) regulations prescribe a three-step sequential evaluation process:

1. A child will be found “not disabled” if he engages in substantial gainful activity.
2. A child will be found “not disabled” if he does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.
3. A child will be found “disabled” if he has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets, medically equals, or functionally equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. 20 C.F.R. § 416. 924(a)-(d).

         To determine whether a child's impairment functionally equals the listings, the SSA will assess the functional limitations caused by the child's impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a). ...


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