United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
OPINION AND ORDER
CHRISTOPHER A. NUECHTERLEIN, Magistrate Judge.
On October 25, 2012, Plaintiff Robert Welch ("Welch") filed his complaint in this Court seeking reversal of the Commissioner's final decision denying him child's disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Alternatively, Welch seeks remand pursuant to either sentence four or sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further consideration of his application for child's disability benefits. On April 8, 2013, Welch filed his Motion for Summary Judgment or Remand to the Commissioner. On August 9, 2013, Defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") filed a response, asking the Court to affirm the decision of the Appeals Council. On September 6, 2013, Welch filed a reply brief. This Court may enter a ruling in this matter based on the parties' consent, 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons discussed below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision.
I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND
On April 11, 2008, Welch filed his first application for Title II Child's Disability Benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 402(d) based on the earning record of his father, John Welch ("John"), after he retired in 2008. Welch's first application was denied on April 11, 2008, and Welch did not seek reconsideration. Welch then filed his second application for child's disability benefits on September 3, 2008. His second application was denied initially on September 16, 2008, and subsequently upon reconsideration on November 28, 2008. A hearing was held before an ALJ on August 11, 2010, at which Welch, his attorney, a member of the attorney's staff, and his father appeared.
On January 20, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying Welch's second application for child's disability benefits. The ALJ found that Welch was not disabled for purposes of Child's Disability Benefits because Welch did not have a disability that began before he attained age 22, as required under the Social Security Act. The ALJ reasoned that Welch's employment after age 22, which constituted substantial gainful activity, precluded such a finding.
On September 7, 2012, however, the Appeals Council affirmed the ALJ's denial of child disability benefits to Welch, but with a slightly different rationale. The Appeals Council found that Welch's ability to perform substantial gainful activity in 1999 and 2000 precluded a finding that he was under a disability that began before Welch attained age 22 and continued through his father John's retirement. In other words, the Appeals Council's conclusion was based on its finding that Welch did not have a continuous disability that began before he attained age 22, as defined in Section 223(d)(1)(A) of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). White v. Sullivan, 965 F.2d 133, 136 (7th Cir. 1992); Bauzo v. Bowen, 803 F.2d 917, 921 (7th Cir. 1986); 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Welch was born with cerebral palsy on October 3, 1969, and is wheelchair-bound. Welch's father retired on March 20, 2008, at which time Welch became eligible to apply for child's disability benefits.
Prior to 2008, the Commissioner had twice adjudicated Welch to be legally disabled. First, the Commissioner awarded Welch Title XVI Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits after finding him legally disabled for purposes of SSI as of December 1, 1987, at the age of 18. Second, the Commissioner awarded Welch Title II Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") after finding him legally disabled for purposes of DIB as of January 1, 1995, at the age of 25. Welch qualified for DIB based on his own part-time work record. Notably, Welch's January 1995 disability onset date for DIB was established because Welch had engaged in employment constituting substantial gainful activity in 1993-1994. Nevertheless, Welch was not engaged in substantial gainful activity and earned nothing for 8 of the 15 years between 1992 and 2007.
He did, however, work part-time again in 1999 and 2000. Through his employment in 1999 and 2000, Welch earned income above the presumptive threshold for substantial gainful activity. As a result of Welch's substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner suspended Welch's disability insurance benefits from January 2000 until May 2000 as required under Title II. Welch's benefits were automatically reinstated in May 2000 after he was terminated from his job for being too slow and was no longer earning income above the threshold level for substantial gainful activity.
Welch continues to receive SSI and DIB today. Yet, Welch's substantial gainful activity in 1999-2000 derailed his application for child's disability benefits. Welch now seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of child's disability benefits arguing that he was under a continuous disability from before he attained the age of 22 until the date of his child's disability benefits application making him eligible to receive child's disability benefits.
A. Standard of Review
The Social Security Act authorizes judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner and mandates that the Commissioner's factual findings must be accepted as conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); White v. Sullivan, 965 F.2d 133, 136 (7th Cir. 1992). Where the Appeals Council makes a decision on the ALJ's findings, the Appeals Council gives the final decision of the Commissioner. Id .; Moothart v. Bowen, 934 F.2d 114, 116 (7th Cir. 1991); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Thus, a court reviewing the findings in the final decision will reverse only if the ...