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JSB-1 v. Saul

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

June 14, 2019

JSB-1, by Alise Bradley, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE

         This is a social security appeal on behalf of a child, referred to herein as “Plaintiff.”[1]Plaintiff's mother alleges that he is disabled by a physical disorder of his lower extremities and by a severe speech and language impairment. An administrative law judge agreed that Plaintiff had severe impairments but found that he did not qualify as disabled. Plaintiff's mother now seeks review of that decision. For the reasons contained herein, the Court will remand this matter to the Commissioner.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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).

         DISCUSSION

         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); 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 he is not disabled. Id. At step two, if the child does not have a severe medical impairment or combination of impairments, then he is not disabled. Id. At step three, a child will qualify as disabled only if his 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 a “marked” limitation 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 activities.” Id. § 416.926a(e)(3)(i). It represents functioning at least three standard deviations from the mean.

         Here, at step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's speech and language impairment and developmental delay were severe impairments within the meaning of the regulations. Proceeding to step three, she found that these impairments did not medically equal any of the listings. The ALJ then assessed whether, under the six domains, Plaintiff's condition functionally equaled any listed impairment. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had a “less than marked” limitation in the domains of acquiring and using information, moving about and manipulating objects, and health and physical well-being. (R. 26-27, 29-31). The ALJ also found “no limitation” in the domains of attending and completing tasks, interacting and relating with others, and ability to care for oneself. (R. 27-31).

         Plaintiff now challenges the ALJ's findings on several grounds. The Court, however, need not address all of Plaintiff's arguments because the ALJ committed error at step three by ignoring an entire line of evidence that contradicts her analysis of Plaintiff's restrictions in the domains of moving about and manipulating objects and health and physical well-being. This requires remand.

         A. Evidence of Existing Limitations

         As part of her step three analysis, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's restrictions in the six domains listed above. Plaintiff now contends that the ALJ impermissibly omitted consideration of evidence that undermines the bases for her conclusions in the domains of moving about and manipulating objects and health and physical well-being. In particular, Plaintiff criticizes the ALJ's observation that he experienced no problems with ambulation after 2015, noting that Plaintiff's mother provided contradicting testimony that, as of mid-2017, Plaintiff still could not walk and run without consistently falling due to an unresolved impairment in his foot. [DE 19 at 20-21][2] The ALJ, however, overlooked this line of evidence, and the Court agrees that remand must follow, especially considering the weight placed on Plaintiff's mobility issues (or, the perceived lack thereof) in the ALJ's discussion of these two domains.

         The domain of moving about and manipulating objects considers how a child moves his body from one place to another and how he moves and manipulates objects. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(j). These tasks require the use of both gross and fine motor skills and involve, among other actions, moving forward and backward in space as when walking or running, and engaging the upper and lower body to transfer objects from one place to another. Id. ยงยง 416.926a(j)(1)(ii)-(iii). With regard to this domain, the ...


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