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Patterson v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

October 30, 2019

ANTHONY PATTERSON O/B/O E.P., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          BROSS & FRANKEL, P.A. By: Richard L. Frankel, Esq. Counsel for Plaintiff.

          SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION By: David Leach, Esq., Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Office of the General Counsel, Counsel for Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          RENÉE MARIE BUMB, U.S.D.J.

         This matter comes before the Court upon an appeal filed by Plaintiff Anthony Patterson (“Plaintiff”) on behalf of his minor son, E.P. (“Claimant”), seeking judicial review of the determination denying Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the Court vacates the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) and remands for proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On April 11, 2011, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for childhood supplemental security income, under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), on behalf of Claimant, alleging disability due to delayed speech. Record of Proceedings (“R.P.”) at 120. The claim was initially denied on June 27, 2011, and again upon reconsideration on November 16, 2011. [R.P., p. 142]. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held before the Honorable Barbara C. Marquardt, ALJ, on July 3, 2013. [R.P., p. 108-119]. On October 22, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision which found Claimant not disabled under the Act. [R.P., p. 139-148]. Following the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff submitted a request for review to the Appeals Council on January 14, 2014. [R.P., p. 216-17]. The Appeals Council then remanded the matter to resolve the following issues: (1) the ALJ's decision failed to explain what weight, if any, she gave to the medical source opinion of the State agency pediatric consultant; and (2) the Appeals Council received additional evidence regarding Claimant's communication skills. [R.P., 153]. Accordingly, on remand, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to offer Claimant an opportunity for a hearing and issue a new decision after “[g]iv[ing] further consideration to the non-examining source opinion” and “[o]btain[ing] additional evidence concerning the claimant's impairments.” [R.P., 154].

         On remand, the Honorable Kenneth Bossong, ALJ, held hearings on February 11, 2016 and October 6, 2016 during which Claimant and Plaintiff testified. [R.P., 52-90]. The ALJ then issued a new opinion on May 16, 2017 finding Claimant not disabled under the Act. [R.P., 14-33]. The Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review on August 1, 2018, and Plaintiff timely filed a complaint in this Court against the Commissioner on October 5, 2018.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In social security appeals, the district court must uphold the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence exists when there is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995)(quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, then those findings are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot “weigh the evidence or substitute its conclusions for those of the fact-finder.” Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992) (citation omitted). Thus, a district court is bound by the findings of the ALJ that are supported by substantial evidence, “even if [it] would have decided the factual inquiry differently.” Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999)(citations omitted). To determine if such substantial evidence exists, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.

         In addition to the “substantial evidence” inquiry, the court must also determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. See Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000); Friedberg v. Schweiker, 721 F.2d 445, 447 (3d Cir. 1983). The Court's review of legal issues is plenary. Sykes, 228 F.3d at 262 (citing Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999)).

         Under the Social Security Act, a child under 18 years old is eligible for SSI if he or she is “disabled, ” meaning he or she “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). To determine whether a child is disabled, the regulations establish a three-step sequential process. See T.C. ex rel. Z.C. v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 497 Fed.Appx. 158, 160 (3d Cir. 2012)(citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a)).

         At step one, the ALJ considers whether the child is engaging in substantial gainful activity. Id. If so, the child is not disabled. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step two, determining whether the child has a medically determinable severe impairment or combination of impairments. Id. If not, the child is not disabled. If so, the ALJ proceeds to step three. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ assesses whether the child has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets, medically equals, or functionally equals a listed impairment set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d). An impairment or combination of medical impairments “medically equals” a listed impairment “if it is at least equal in severity and duration to the criteria of any listed impairment.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926(a). An impairment or combination of impairments “functionally equals” a listed impairment if the child has “marked” limitations in two domains of functioning or an “extreme” limitation in one domain. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a).

         The six domains of functioning are: (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)(i)-(vi). A “marked” limitation exists when it “interferes seriously with [the child's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities, ” and is considered “‘more than moderate' but ‘less than extreme.'” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2). An “extreme” limitation exists when it “interferes very seriously with [the child's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or ...


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