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Fletcher v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

June 3, 2016

RENEE FLETCHER, Mother of the Minor T.F., Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER Dkt. Nos. 20 and 22

          Mark G. Mastroianni Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This is an action for judicial review of a final decision by Carolyn Colvin, the acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"), regarding a child’s entitlement to Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (referring to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Renee Fletcher ("Plaintiff"), proceeding pro se, asserts the Commissioner’s decision denying her son "T.F." such benefits-memorialized in an August 23, 2013 decision of an administrative law judge ("ALJ")-is in error. She has filed a motion for summary judgment seeking to reverse the decision and the Commissioner, in turn, has moved to affirm.[1]

         For the reasons set forth below, the court allows the Commissioner’s motion and denies Plaintiff’s motion. The parties are familiar with the facts and procedural history[2] of this case.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The role of a district court reviewing an administrative law judge’s decision is limited to determining whether the conclusion was supported by substantial evidence and based on the correct legal standard. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1983(c)(3); Manso-Pizarro v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996). The Supreme Court has defined substantial evidence as "more than a mere scintilla." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Even if the administrative record could support multiple conclusions, a court must uphold the Commissioner’s findings "if a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support his conclusion." Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991) (quoting Rodriguez v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981)). Additionally, it is the Commissioner’s responsibility to weigh conflicting evidence and decide issues of credibility. Rodriguez, 647 F.2d at 222.

         III. DISABILITY STANDARD AND THE ALJ’S DECISION

         Unlike most adult SSI disability cases handled by this court, the instant action involves childhood benefits that are determined under different standards. Compare, e.g., Robert v. Astrue, 688 F.Supp.2d 29, 34-35 (D. Mass. 2010), with Ortiz Rosado v. Barnhart, 340 F.Supp.2d 63, 64-65 (D. Mass. 2004). For a child to be found disabled and entitled to SSI benefits, he must meet the standards of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, Public Law 104-193 (the "PRWORA"), enacted on August 22, 1996. As codified, the PRWORA provides as follows:

An individual under the age of 18 shall be considered disabled for the purposes of this subchapter if that individual has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and which can be expected to result in death or 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). Prior to 1996, Social Security Administration regulations had required individualized functional assessments ("IFA") for each child. See Encarnacion ex rel. George v. Astrue, 568 F.3d 72, 74-75 (2d Cir. 2009) (describing the history of SSI child disability standards). The PRWORA eliminated the IFA procedure and promulgated more stringent child disability standards. See id.

         In response to the PRWORA, the Commissioner established a three-step protocol for determining whether a child under age eighteen is disabled. See Beliveau v. Apfel, 154 F.Supp.2d 89, 93 (D. Mass. 2001) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924). First, the Commissioner must determine whether the child is engaging in "substantial gainful activity." Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b)). If not, the Commissioner proceeds to step two to determine whether the child has an impairment or combination of impairments that are "severe." See Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c)). At step three, the Commissioner must determine whether the severe impairment meets, medically equals, or functionally equals an impairment listed in the "Listing of Impairments" from Appendix 1 of Subpart P of the Commissioner’s regulations. See Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d)).

         An impairment medically equals a listing "if it is at least equal in severity and duration to the criteria of any listed impairment." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926(a). Conversely, functional equivalency may be measured in "domains, " which include (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. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1). To qualify as functionally equivalent to a listing, the child’s impairment "must result in [either] ‘marked’ limitations in two domains of functioning or an ‘extreme’ limitation in one domain." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a). The child has a "marked" limitation-i.e., one "that is ‘more than moderate’ but ‘less than extreme’"-when the impairment "interferes seriously with [the child’s] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i). The child has an "extreme" limitation-i.e., "the rating [the Commissioner] give[s] to the worst limitations"-when the impairment "interferes very seriously with [the child’s] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(3)(i). At this third step, if the Commissioner determines that the child’s impairment does not meet, medically equal, or functionally equal a "listed" impairment, the child will be deemed "not disabled." See Beliveau, 154 F.Supp.2d at 93 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d)).

         In the instant action, the ALJ found as follows with respect to these three steps: T.F. had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity (step one); T.F. suffers from impairments that are "severe, " namely, asthma and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"), but those impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and with regard to "functional equivalency, " T.F. has no "marked" or "extreme" limitations in any domain (steps two and three). The ALJ found "less than marked limitations" in the domains of (1) acquiring and using information, (2) attending and completing tasks, (5) caring for oneself, and (6) health and physical well-being; the ALJ found no limitations in the domains of (3) interacting and relating with others and (4) moving about and manipulating ...


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