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Cora T. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

March 14, 2019

CORA T. o/b/o C.R.T., a minor, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, for the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Cora T.[1] requests judicial review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “SSA”), denying her child's, (“C.R.T.”) application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). For the following reasons, the Court affirms the decision of the Acting Commissioner.


         On March 31, 2014, an application for SSI was filed alleging a disability onset date beginning in 2009 (when C.R.T. was born). (Filing No. 5-3 at 21.) His application was initially denied on June 19, 2014, (Filing No. 5-5 at 2), and upon reconsideration on November 23, 2014, (Filing No. 5-5 at 11). Administrative Law Judge Tammy Whitaker (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on October 31, 2016, at which Cora T. and C.R.T., represented by counsel, appeared and testified. (Filing No. 5-3 at 47-81.) The ALJ issued a decision on January 12, 2017, concluding that C.R.T. was not entitled to receive SSI. (Filing No. 5-3 at 18.) The Appeals Council denied review on January 4, 2018. (Filing No. 5-2 at 2.) On March 1, 2018, Cora T. timely filed this civil action, asking the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) to review the final decision of the Acting Commissioner denying C.R.T. benefits. (Filing No. 1.)


         For claimants under the age of eighteen, a claimant must have a disability as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. The Act defines child disability as a “medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i). In determining whether a minor claimant is disabled, the Acting Commissioner employs a three-step sequential analysis: (1) if the claimant is engaged in work that qualifies as substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled regardless of his medical condition, age, education, or work experience; (2) if the claimant does not have a medically determinable severe impairment or combination of impairments, he is not disabled; and (3) if the claimant does not have an impairment that meets, medically equals, or functionally equals a Listing or does not meet the twelve-month durational requirement, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a); Murphy v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 630, 633 (7th Cir. 2007).

         In considering whether a child's impairment functionally equals a listing, the Acting Commissioner determines whether the claimant has an extreme limitation in one of the following domains or a marked limitation in two of the following 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 yourself, and (6) health and physical well-being. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a); 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1); Giles ex rel. Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 487 (7th Cir. 2007). In determining whether such limitations exist, the Acting Commissioner must consider the interactive and cumulative effects of all the impairments regardless of their severity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a).

         Section 405(g) of the Act gives the court “power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In reviewing the ALJ's decision, this Court must uphold the ALJ's findings of fact if the findings are supported by substantial evidence and no error of law occurred. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). “Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. Further, this Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008). While the court reviews the ALJ's decision deferentially, the court cannot uphold an ALJ's decision if the decision “fails to mention highly pertinent evidence, . . . or that because of contradictions or missing premises fails to build a logical bridge between the facts of the case and the outcome.” Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted).

         The ALJ “need not evaluate in writing every piece of testimony and evidence submitted.” Carlson v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 180, 181 (7th Cir. 1993). However, the “ALJ's decision must be based upon consideration of all the relevant evidence.” Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). The ALJ is required to articulate only a minimal, but legitimate, justification for her acceptance or rejection of specific evidence of disability. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004).


         C.R.T. was born in June 2009 and was four years of age at the time his application for SSI was filed. (Filing No. 5-6 at 2.) His application was filed because C.R.T. was deaf in his left ear, (Filing No. 5-7 at 23), though issues with attention and hyperactivity were also noted, (Filing No. 5-7 at 10-11). He was born premature with toxemia because of his mother's abuse of pain medications and marijuana during pregnancy. (Filing No. 5-9 at 72.) C.R.T. did not have a stable household initially, but was removed from his parents because of continued drug use and his father's incarceration, and was adopted by his grandparents, including Cora T. (Filing No. 5-9 at 71.)[2]

         The ALJ followed the three-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a) and ultimately concluded that C.R.T. was not disabled. (Filing No. 5-3 at 39.) At step one, the ALJ found that C.R.T. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date, March 31, 2014.[3] (Filing No. 5-3 at 24.) At step two, the ALJ found that he had the following severe impairments: “hearing impairment, status post implant of attract bone anchored hearing aid for deafness in the left ear since birth, and borderline normal hearing in the right ear; Speech Sound Articulation Disorder; borderline intelligence; adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct; and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (20 CFR 416.924(c)).” (Filing No. 5-3 at 24.) At step three, the ALJ found that he did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (Filing No. 5-3 at 26.) The ALJ also found that C.R.T. did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equaled the severity of the listings, specifically finding that he had less than a marked limitation in each of the domains, including acquiring and using information and attending and completing tasks. (Filing No. 5-3 at 26-39.)


         Cora T. raises two issues on appeal, that the ALJ erred in finding that C.R.T. (1) did not meet or equal a listing, and (2) did not have marked limitations in his ability to acquire and use information and attend and complete tasks. The Court will consider the issues raised in turn.

         A. Meeting or Equaling a Listing

          Cora T. asserts that the ALJ did not provide an adequate explanation of her finding that C.R.T.'s impairments did not meet or equal any listing. (Filing No. 7 at 15.) She contends that there is adequate evidence “to argue that C.R.T. could at least equal Listings 112.02, 112.04, 112.05, or 112.11 for the combination of his impairments, including ADHD, developmental delays, and moderate mental retardation.” (Filing No. 7 at 16.) She argues that equivalence is strictly a medical determination and the ALJ failed to get expert assistance in accordance with Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-6p, such that the case must be remanded. (Filing No. 7 at 17.) She further contends that the ALJ's failure to utilize a medical expert to interpret testimony and updated medical records resulted in the ALJ “impermissibly playing doctor.” (Filing No. 7 at 18.)

         The Acting Commissioner responds that the ALJ's determination that no listing was met or equaled was supported by substantial evidence. (Filing No. 11 at 10.) The Acting Commissioner asserts that neither state agency reviewing consultant opined that C.R.T.'s impairments met or medically equaled a listing and the ALJ was entitled to rely on their opinions. (Filing No. 11 at 13-14.) Furthermore, the Acting Commissioner ...

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