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M.N. ex rel. Rodriguez v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

April 22, 2014

M.N. ex rel. RODRIGUEZ Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


DANIEL G. MARTIN, Magistrate Judge.

Rhonda Rodriguez ("Rodriguez") filed this action on behalf of her minor son, M.N., seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") that denied M.N.'s claim for Social Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(c). The parties have consented to have this Court conduct all proceedings in this case, including an entry of final judgment. 28 U.S.C. § 636(e); N.D.Ill. R. 73.1(c). For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted.

I. Legal Standard

A. The Social Security Administration Standard

Prior to 1996, a child was considered disabled if he or she had a physical or mental impairment that was of comparable severity to one that would disable an adult. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (1994); 20 C.F.R. § 416.924 (1996); Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593-94 (7th Cir. 2002). Congress altered this standard under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act ("PRWORA") to require a higher showing by a minor claimant. Scott, 297 F.3d at 594 n.5. A child is considered disabled under PRWORA if she "has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations" for a period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i); Harris v. Barnhart, 231 F.Supp.2d 776, 779-80 (N.D. Ill. 2002).

To determine if such an impairment exists, the Social Security Administration ("SSA") has promulgated regulations that limit the familiar five-step process that applies to adults to only three steps. The ALJ must answer three questions: (1) is the child engaged in substantial gainful activity? (2) does the child have a medically determinable impairment that is severe? and, (3) do these impairments meet, medically equal, or (unique to child claimants) functionally equal one of a list of severe impairments set forth in the listings? 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b)-(d). An affirmative answer at Step 1 ends the analysis, and a child must be found not to be disabled regardless of his age or medical condition. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b). A negative answer at Step 2 also requires a finding that the child is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c).

Unlike the Step 3 requirements that apply to adults, the regulations state that a child satisfies the third step when her condition "functionally equals" a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d). This requirement permits a finding of disability if a child's impairment or combination of impairments results in one of two possible findings. First, the impairments must give rise to "marked" limitations in two of six "domains of functioning, " including (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(a) & 416.026a(b)(1)(i)-(vi). A limitation is marked if it "interferes seriously" with a child's ability to independently begin, sustain, or finish activities. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i). Such a limitation is "more than moderate" and is equivalent to what one would expect for the functioning level of a child whose standardized test scores are at least two, but less than three, standard deviations below the mean. Id.

In the alternative, impairments functionally equal a listed requirement when they constitute an "extreme" limitation in one of the six domains of activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.92a(a). A limitation is extreme if it "very seriously" interferes with a child's ability to initiate, sustain, or complete activities. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(3)(i). An extreme limitation indicates the "worst limitations, " though it does not require a complete loss of functioning. It reflects the functioning level expected for a child whose standardized test scores are at least three standard deviations below the mean. Id.

B. Standard of Review

A claimant who is found to be "not disabled" may challenge the Commissioner's final decision in federal court. Judicial review of an ALJ's decision is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A court reviews the entire record, but it does not displace the ALJ's judgment by reweighing the facts or by making independent credibility determinations. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). Instead, the court looks at whether the ALJ articulated an "accurate and logical bridge" from the evidence to her conclusions. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). This requirement is designed to allow a reviewing court to "assess the validity of the agency's ultimate findings and afford a claimant meaningful judicial review." Scott, 297 F.3d at 595. Thus, even if reasonable minds could differ as to whether the claimant is disabled, courts will affirm a decision if the ALJ's opinion is adequately explained and supported by substantial evidence. Elder, 529 F.3d at 413 (citation omitted).

II. Background Facts

A. School and Medical Records

The medical records show that M.N. was diagnosed with restricted breathing as early as 5.5 months of age. (R. 357). He has received numerous emergency treatments. In September 2003, M.N. had already been given a diagnosis of asthma when he received emergency triage at Provena St. Joseph Hospital for hypoxia. (R. 310). He also went to the ER at Sherman Hospital in September 2006 for breathing problems and was given Albuterol. (R. 404). M.N. presented at Provena St. Joseph in September 2009 for asthma-related issues. (R. 482). His asthma medications include an Advair inhaler, Albuterol (both as an inhaler and a solution), prednisone, Singulair, Xoponex, and Flovent. (R. 27, 180). M.N. also suffers from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"). The earliest diagnosis for ADHD appears to be part of a July 1, 2009 psychiatric evaluation from Aunt Martha's Youth Service Center. (R. 464, 468).

The administrative record contains only a handful of school documents. Report cards for school years spanning 2006 through 2009 show that M.N. met or exceeded most of the expectations set by school officials. (R. 201-07, 248-58). A report for the 2010-11 school year echoed those conclusions. (R. 550-51). Two teacher questionnaires assessed M.N.'s functioning in five of the six domains required for a child disability application. A second-grade assessment found that he had no problems in acquiring and using information. Several "obvious" or "serious" problems were noted in the domains of completing tasks and caring for himself. The scores for interacting with others and manipulating objects also reflect general concerns that were not identified in detail. (R. 272-78). His teacher noted that M.N. had difficulty in following directions, staying on task, and working with others. A behavioral plan had been implemented to track his activities throughout the day. The teacher further noted that M.N. had "extreme difficulties" in moving in a controlled and appropriate manner. (R. 275). The only reference to asthma states that M.N. had suffered from four bad attacks during the year and could not go outside for recess if the temperature was below 55 degrees. (R. 277).

A second report was issued when M.N. was in the third grade. No problems were noted in any of his domains of functioning. (R. 237-41). The only other records include a May 2007 report by a school psychologist, stating that M.N. was doing well academically but had some behavioral problems. (R. 265). A mid-term report for the 2009-10 school year shows ...

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