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Gantner ex rel., J.J. v. Berryhill

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

November 27, 2017

ANNETTE GANTNER, ex. rel. J.J., a minor, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.


          MARY M. ROWLAND United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Annette Gantner filed this action on behalf of minor, J.J., seeking reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (Act). 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1381 et. seq. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and filed cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.


         On June 26, 2013, an application for SSI was filed on behalf of a minor child, J.J., by his legal guardian, Annette Gantner. (R. at 153-58).[2] J.J. was born on November 13, 2003 and his application alleged that he became disabled on November 13, 2003. (Id. at 153). The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which Ms. Gantner filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 20). On May 13, 2015, J.J. and Ms. Gantner testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 38-63).

         On June 5, 2015, the ALJ denied J.H.'s request for benefits. (R. at 20-33). Applying the three-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found at step one that J.J. has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his application date. At step two, the ALJ found that J.J.'s speech and language delay is a severe impairment. At step three, the ALJ determined that J.J. does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of any of the Listings of Impairments (Listings). The ALJ then determined that J.J. does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equal the severity of any of the Listings.

         On November 16, 2016, the Appeals Council denied J.J.'s request for review. (R. at 1-4). J.J. now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).


         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized under 42 U.S.C. 405(g). On review, the Court may not engage in its own analysis of whether the plaintiff is severely impaired as defined by the Social Security Regulations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Nor may it “reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in general, substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Id. The Court's task is “limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Id. Evidence is considered substantial “if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support a conclusion.” Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 473 (7th Cir. 2004); see Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1120-21 (7th Cir. 2014). “Substantial evidence must be more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). The ALJ must “explain his analysis of the evidence with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review.” Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005).

         Although this Court accords great deference to the ALJ's determination, it “must do more than merely rubber stamp the ALJ's decision.” Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). “[T]he ALJ must identify the relevant evidence and build a ‘logical bridge' between that evidence and the ultimate determination.” Moon v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 718, 721 (7th Cir. 2014). Where the Commissioner's decision “lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded.” Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

         “A child qualifies as disabled and therefore may be eligible for SSI if he has a ‘medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations' and the impairment ‘has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.'” Hopgood ex rel. L.G. v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 696, 699 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i)). To decide whether a child meets this definition, the Social Security Administration (SSA) employs a three-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a). First, if the child is engaged in substantial gainful activity, his or her claim is denied. Id. Second, if the child does not have a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments, then his or her claim is denied. Id. Finally, the child's impairments must meet, or be functionally equivalent, to any of the Listings contained in 20 CFR pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. Id. To find an impairment functionally equivalent to one in the Listings, an ALJ must analyze its severity in six age-appropriate categories: “(i) acquiring and using information; (ii) attending and completing tasks; (iii) interacting and relating with others; (iv) moving about and manipulating objects; (v) caring for yourself; and (vi) health and physical well-being.” Id. § 416.926a(b)(1). To functionally equal the Listings, the ALJ must find an “extreme” limitation in one category or a “marked” limitation in two categories. An “extreme” limitation occurs when the impairment interferes very seriously with the child's ability to independently initiate, sustain or complete activities. Id. § 416.926a(e)(3)(i). A “marked” limitation is one which interferes seriously with the child's ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities. Id. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i).


         J.J. raises four arguments in support of his request for reversal of the ALJ's determination that he is not disabled: (1) the ALJ failed to properly consider his teachers' reports; (2) the ALJ failed to weigh the opinion evidence as required; (3) the ALJ failed to properly assess the credibility of J.J. and Ms. Gantner; and (4) the ALJ's domain findings lacked support in the record. (Dkt. 18). After reviewing the record and the parties' briefs, the Court is persuaded that the reasons provided by the ALJ for finding that J.J. had less than marked limitations in two domains in particular-attending and completing tasks and acquiring and using information- are legally insufficient and not supported by substantial evidence. See Hopgood ex rel. L.G., 578 F.3d at 697 (remanding where the ALJ “made conclusory statements that contradicted the evidence presented and failed to address portions of medical and school records that were favorable to [the child].”). The Court will discuss the ALJ's errors regarding these two domains and will address J.J.'s arguments regarding the teachers' reports and opinion evidence. The Court need not address credibility.

         A. The ALJ's Domain Finding in Attending and Completing Tasks

         The attending and completing tasks domain considers “how well you are able to focus and maintain your attention, and how well you begin, carry through, and finish your activities, including the pace at which you perform activities and the ease with which you change them.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(h). Attention involves regulating levels of alertness and initiating and maintaining concentration; the ability to filter out distractions and focus on an activity or task at a consistent level of performance; focusing long enough to initiate and complete an activity or task, and changing focus once it is completed; and if you lose ...

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