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JSB-2 v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

May 10, 2019

JSB-2, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This is a social security appeal on behalf of a child, referred to by her initials, J.S.B.[1] The child's mother alleges that the child is disabled by a disorder of her right arm caused by trauma during birth. An administrative law judge agreed that J.S.B. had severe impairments but found that she did not qualify as disabled. J.S.B.'s mother seeks review of that decision. As explained below, the Court concludes that the decision was supported by substantial evidence and was procedurally sound, so the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.


         J.S.B. was born in January 2014. She experienced a trauma to her right shoulder during the delivery due to shoulder dystocia. After the delivery, she would move her right wrist and forearm but was not moving her right shoulder. Routine doctors' visits over the ensuing months reflected that J.S.B. was developing appropriately, but that she was still experiencing problems with her right shoulder. J.S.B. was diagnosed with Erb's Palsy and was referred for physical therapy. J.S.B.'s mother completed a function report in August 2018, indicating that J.S.B. was functioning like a normal seven-month-old except for her right arm, which caused difficulty crawling, rolling over, and holding a bottle. Office reports from around the same time indicated that J.S.B. would hold her bottle with her left hand, using her right hand only for support, and that she would move her right hand by bending at the elbow but not the shoulder. (R. 232-33, 282). A consultative examination the following month indicated that J.S.B. had motor delays but was otherwise average in her overall development.

         Physical therapy records reflected that J.S.B. generally made progress with her right arm but still had decreased use of her shoulder. She was also fitted with orthotic braces. A function report completed in February 2016 indicated that J.S.B.'s use of her right hand and arm had improved, and that she was willingly using her right hand to manipulate objects. It also noted that J.S.B. could drink from an open cup, use utensils, brush her teeth, and wash her hands. (R. 357).

         J.S.B.'s mother had applied for disability benefits on her behalf in July 2014. Agency consultants thus reviewed her records in September and October 2014 but concluded that J.S.B. was not disabled. In particular, they concluded that she had “marked” limitations in the domain of Moving About and Manipulation of Objects, but no limitations in the other five domains. (R. 60-61). On reconsideration, another set of consultants reached the same conclusions, except that they concluded she had “less than marked” limitations in the domain of Health and Physical Well-Being. J.S.B.'s mother thus requested a hearing, which took place in December 2016. J.S.B.'s mother attended the hearing and waived her right to counsel after discussing her rights with the ALJ.

         After the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding that J.S.B. did not qualify as disabled. He found that she had severe impairments of Erb's Palsy and a motor skills developmental delay, but that she did not meet or medically equal a listing. The ALJ thus considered her functioning in the six domains to determine if she functionally equaled a listing. He found that J.S.B. had marked limitations in the domain of Moving About and Manipulation of Objects; less-than-marked limitations in the domain of Health and Physical Well-Being; and no limitations in the remaining domains. Because J.S.B. did not have marked limitations in at least two domains, she did not qualify as disabled, so the ALJ denied her claim. The Appeals Council denied review, so J.S.B.'s mother filed this action seeking review of the Commissioner's decision.


         Because the Appeals Council denied review, the Court evaluates the ALJ's decision as the final word of the Commissioner of Social Security. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). This Court will affirm the Commissioner's findings of fact and denial of disability benefits if they are supported by substantial evidence. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). This evidence must be “more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Thus, even if “reasonable minds could differ” about the disability status of the claimant, the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision as long as it is adequately supported. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         It is the duty of the ALJ to weigh the evidence, resolve material conflicts, make independent findings of fact, and dispose of the case accordingly. Perales, 402 U.S. at 399-400. In this substantial-evidence determination, the Court considers the entire administrative record but does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute the Court's own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Nevertheless, the Court conducts a “critical review of the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Id. An ALJ must evaluate both the evidence favoring the claimant as well as the evidence favoring the claim's rejection and may not ignore an entire line of evidence that is contrary to his or her findings. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001). Consequently, an ALJ's decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues. Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539. Ultimately, while the ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, the ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).


         Under Supplemental Security Income rules, a child is disabled if he has a “medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations” that “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). This assessment requires a three-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a); L.D.R. v. Berryhill, 920 F.3d 1146, 1150 (7th Cir. 2019); Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 809-10 (7th Cir. 2011). At step one, if the child is engaged in substantial gainful activity, then she is not disabled. Id. At step two, if the child does not have a severe medical impairment or combination of impairments, then she is not disabled. Id. At step three, a child will qualify as disabled only if her impairments “meet, ” “medically equal, ” or “functionally equal” any of the listings contained in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. Id.

         To determine if a child's impairments are “functionally equivalent” to a listing, an ALJ analyzes their severity 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 oneself; and (6) health and physical well-being. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1); see Murphy v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 630, 634 (7th Cir. 2007); Sanchez v. Barnhart, 467 F.3d 1081, 1082 (7th Cir. 2006) (since children do not generally have work history, the structure of the disability program for them necessarily differs from that for adults, and focuses on the functioning of the child in specified areas of life activity). For a child to functionally equal a listing, the ALJ must find an “extreme” limitation in one domain or “marked” limitations in two domains. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a), (e)(2)(i).

         A “marked” limitation is one that “interferes seriously with [a claimant's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i). A marked limitation represents functioning between two and three standard deviations below the mean. A limitation is “extreme” if it “interferes very seriously with [a claimant's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete ...

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