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Cynthia L.-B. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

December 12, 2018

CYNTHIA L.-B. on behalf of I. B.-Y. a minor child, [1] Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MICHAEL W. MOSMAN, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Cynthia L.-B., on behalf of her minor child I. B.-Y. ("Plaintiff), seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and this case is REMANDED for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiffs Application for SSI Benefits

         Plaintiffs mother, Cynthia L.-B., filed an application for SSI on behalf of Plaintiff on November 27, 2013. Tr. 18. Plaintiff is alleged to have been disabled since his birth in April 2011. Tr. 18. An administrative hearing was held on February 9, 2016, before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Tr. 18. Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing and a Medical Expert was the only witness to testify. Tr. 18. The ALJ held a supplemental hearing on February 25, 2016, in which Plaintiff was again represented by counsel. Both Plaintiff and Plaintiffs mother testified at the supplemental hearing. Tr. 18. The ALJ then issued an opinion finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 36. Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 1. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff s request for review on September 6, 2017, making the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff was not disabled the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1. Plaintiff then timely filed this action challenging the Commissioner's decision.

         B. The Three-Step Analysis

         A child claimant under the age of eighteen is disabled if he can demonstrate "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). Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a), a child's disability claim is assessed according to a three-step sequential evaluation process. In the first step, the ALJ must determine whether the child is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b). Substantial gainful activity is defined as work involving significant mental or physical activities of the sort usually done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 416.972. If the child is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b). If the child is not performing substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two. In step two, the ALJ must determine if the child suffers from a medically determinable impairment that is "severe." 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). An impairment or combination of impairments is "severe" if it is more than "a slight abnormality or combination of slight abnormalities that causes no more than minimal functional limitations." Id. If the claimant has a severe impairment, the analysis proceeds to step three. In step three, the ALJ must determine if the child's severe impairment meets, medically equals, or functionally equals one or more of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. If an impairment meets the criteria of a listed impairment, then the child is considered disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d)(1). If the impairment does not meet, medically equal, or functionally equal the severity of one or more of the listed impairments, then the child is not disabled under the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d)(2).

         C. The ALJ's Findings in This Case

         The ALJ performed the three-step sequential process for determining whether a child claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a). At step one, the ALJ stated that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date of application for benefits. Tr. 21. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had two severe impairments: anxiety disorder and speech disorder. Tr. 21. In finding these impairments severe, the ALJ placed "great weight" on the opinion of the Medical Expert, who testified at the administrative hearing about Plaintiffs medical record. Id. At the third step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met, medically equaled, or functionally equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ again gave "great weight" to the Medical Expert's opinion at step three. Tr. 22. Because the ALJ determined that Plaintiffs impairments did not meet, medically equal, or functionally equal the severity of one of the listed impairments, Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the decision is based on proper legal standards and the legal findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm 'r, 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence "means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). In reviewing the Commissioner's alleged errors, a court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion." Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's interpretation must be upheld even if the evidence is susceptible to several rational interpretations. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). The Commissioner's decision will not be reversed for harmless error. Id.

         DISCUSSION

         The parties agree that the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion of the Medical Expert at step three of the sequential evaluation process and, therefore, that this case should be remanded to the Commissioner. The only issue that I must decide is whether benefits should be awarded immediately upon remand or whether further proceedings are warranted. Because I am not convinced that the record has been fully developed, I remand this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         A. The ...


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