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Harris ex rel W.H. v. Astrue

September 21, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Nan R. Nolan


Alecia Harris ("Ms. Harris") appeals from an ALJ's decision denying her son W.H. ("Plaintiff") Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. Because the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the denial of benefits is affirmed.

I. Background

Ms. Harris claims Plaintiff became totally disabled on January 1, 1999 because of emotional problems (R. 66). Plaintiff was born on November 15, 1990 and has a history of bipolar disorder, enuresis*fn1, encopresis*fn2, and obesity. The ALJ rendered a partially favorable decision finding that Plaintiff had been disabled from May 18, 2004 to January 1, 2007, but not thereafter (R. 17-26).

The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 18, 2004, the date the application for Supplemental Security Income was filed. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff's bipolar disorder, enuresis, encopresis, and obesity are severe impairments, but that they do not qualify as a listed impairment. The ALJ determined that from May 18, 2004 to January 1, 2007, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equaled the listings. The ALJ concluded that beginning January 1, 2007, Plaintiff's impairments were no longer functionally equivalent to a listed impairment.

II. Discussion

Under the Social Security Act, a child is disabled if he has a "physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and... 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). The Commissioner uses a three-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a child meets this definition. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a). First, if the child is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled. Id. Second, if the child does not have a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments, then his claim is denied. Id. Third, the child's impairment must meet or be medically or functionally equivalent to one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. Id.

To determine whether an impairment is the functional equivalent of a listing, the ALJ analyzes its 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 yourself; and 6) health and physical well-being. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a. A child's impairment functionally equals a listing and the child will be found disabled if the ALJ finds a "marked" difficulty in two domains or an "extreme" limitation in one domain. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a). A "marked" limitation seriously interferes with a child's ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i). An "extreme" limitation exists when a child's "impairment interferes very seriously with [his] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(3)(I).

Judicial review of the ALJ's decision is limited to determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence or based upon a legal error. Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1153 (7th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420 (1971). This Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner by reevaluating facts, reweighing evidence, resolving conflicts in evidence, or deciding questions of credibility. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998).

Applying the above framework, the ALJ here concluded that Plaintiff had marked limitations in interacting and relating with others and marked limitations in caring for personal needs from May 18, 2004 to December 31, 2006, and therefore qualified for Supplemental Security Income during that time period. The ALJ determined that by January 1, 2007, Plaintiff's impairments were no longer functionally equal to a listed impairment. Plaintiff raises three main challenges to the ALJ's decision that Plaintiff was no longer disabled by January 1, 2007: (1) the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of counselor Brian McLaughlin in violation of Social Security Ruling 06-03p; (2) the ALJ erred in failing to find that Plaintiff had "marked" difficulties in the domains of interacting with others and caring for himself; and (3) the ALJ erred in failing to make credibility findings for Plaintiff or his mother for the period after January 1, 2007. None of these arguments warrant reversal or remand.

A. Social Security Ruling 06-03p

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of counselor Brian McLaughlin (McLaughlin) for the time period after December 31, 2006 without following the requirements of Social Security Ruling 06-03p. McLaughlin is a counselor who was providing mental health therapy to Plaintiff. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ should have used the criteria found in SSR 06-03p for assessing non-medical sources.

Social Security Ruling 06-03p clarifies how the Administration considers opinions from sources who are not "acceptable medical sources." The ruling recognizes that opinions from medical sources who are not technically deemed "acceptable medical sources" "are important and should be evaluated on key issues such as impairment severity and functional effects, along with the other relevant evidence in the file." SSR 06-03p at *3. SSR 06-03p directs that the same factors that apply to evaluating medical opinions from "acceptable medical sources" can be applied to opinion evidence from "other sources." Id. at *4. Those factors include: (1) how long the source has known the claimant; (2) how frequently the source has seen the claimant; (3) how consistent the opinion is with the record as a whole; (4) the degree to which the source presents relevant evidence to support an opinion; (5) how well the source explains the opinion; (6) whether the source has a specialty or area of expertise related to the claimant's impairment(s); and (7) any other factors that tend to support or refute the opinion." Id. at *4-5.

McLaughlin reported on May 25, 2006 that he had been meeting with Plaintiff in weekly family sessions for 18 months and meeting ...

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