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Gantner v. Berryhill

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

December 18, 2017

ANNETTE GANTNER, O/B/O M.J., a minor Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff Annette Gantner ("Ms, Gantner"), on behalf of her minor great-nephew, M.J. ("MJ"), has filed a motion for summary judgment and memorandum in support seeking reversal or remand of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying MJ's application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits ("SSI") (doc. #22: PL's Mot. for Summ. J.) (doc. # 23: Pl.'s Br. in Supp. of Reversing the Decision of the Comm'r of Soc. Sec. ("Pl.'s Mem.")). The Commissioner filed her own motion seeking affirmance of the decision denying benefits (doc. # 24: Comm'r's Mot. for Summ. J.) (doc. #. 25: Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. ("Def.'s Mem.")). Ms. Gantner also filed a reply (doc, # 26: Pl.'s Reply to Def.'s Resp. and Mot. for Summ. J.). For the following reasons, we grant Ms. Gantner's motion and deny the Commissioner's motion.


         Ms. Gantner, MJ's legal guardian, applied for SSI on MPs behalf on June 6, 2013 with an alleged disability onset date of November 13, 2003 (R. 19, 153-54). The application was denied initially on September 17, 2013, and upon reconsideration on March 7, 2014 (R. 19). Upon timely request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on May 13, 2015 (Id.). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on June 5, 2015, finding that MJ is not disabled (R. 19-32). The Appeals Council then denied Ms. Gantner's request for review, making the ALJ's ruling the final decision of the Commissioner (R. 1-6). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Shauger v. Astrue, 675 F.3d 690, 695 (7th Cir. 2012).


         MJ was born on November 13, 2003 and was 11 years old at the time of the hearing before the ALJ (R. 22-23). MJ has a twin brother as well as an older brother and a sister (R. 53). MJ and his three siblings were removed from their parents' care in 2012 by the Department of Children and Family Services ("DCFS") and have lived with Ms. Gantner, their aunt and legal guardian, since that time (R. 23, 25, 63). MJ's father visits him at Ms. Gantner's home, but MJ's mother is no longer allowed to visit the home because of an incident that occurred with Ms. Gantner in March2015(R.23, 52).

         The medical record here is rather sparse, with treatment notes only from Family Christian Health Center, dated December 18, 2012 through January 25, 2013, describing MJ's sinusitis diagnoses and follow-up care (R. 347-368). Instead, the record focuses on school records addressing MJ's learning disabilities, behavioral, and social-emotional difficulties. To that end, the record contains numerous school assessments, Individualized Education Programs ("IEP"), Teacher Questionnaires, and psychological consultative and speech-language evaluations. Through the process of applying for SSI benefits, MJ was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD") in August 2013 after undergoing a psychological consultative examination by an agency doctor (R. 376).

         MJ was also diagnosed with a speech and language delay. He struggles with some core subjects in school and receives special education services (R. 212, 223, 235, 371-72). MPs learning disability stems from his impulsiveness, inattentiveness and distractibility, and how those conditions affect the various areas of his life (R. 214, 224, 223).

         Beginning in December 2009 (when he was six years old), MJ underwent a Speech and Language Assessment wherein David Sheldon ("Mr, Sheldon"), a speech/language pathologist, reported that MJ demonstrated mild to moderate delays in language comprehension, auditory processing and oral expression (R. 243). Mr. Sheldon opined that these deficits significantly impacted MJ's academic, communicative and social-emotional success (Id.). Also in December 2009, School Psychologist Mary Ellen Mauro ("Ms. Mauro") wrote in her interpretive report that MJ's abilities to sustain attention, concentrate, and exert mental control were a weakness that affected his nonverbal reasoning abilities (R. 249). Moreover, she noted that his cognitive ability could not easily be summarized because his nonverbal reasoning abilities were much better developed than his verbal reasoning abilities (Id.).

         During an IEP conference in November 2012 (when MJ was about nine years old), it was determined that MJ continued to need an IEP for speech and language therapy and social work (R. 211, 214). At school, he received speech/language services throughout the day and 60-minutes of social work services per week (R. 214-15). He met the speech or language impairment criteria for language delay/disorder and pragmatic language (R. 216).

         In a Teacher Questionnaire dated August 23, 2013, MJ's special education teacher, Bonnie Mattson ("Ms. Mattson") and speech/language pathologist, Theresa Schultz ("Ms. Schultz") noted that they had been teaching MJ on a daily basis for the past two years in a self-contained special education class with daily speech and language therapy imbedded in the classroom (R. 200). They opined that MJ had a slight to serious problem in several areas of the domains (R. 200-05).[3]

         Also in August 2013, MJ's school principal, Donna Brown, completed a questionnaire noting that MJ had a history of a speech-language impairment that affected his ability to learn (R. 371-72). For this reason, he was placed in the communication development classroom, supported by a special education teacher and a speech pathologist in the classroom full time (Id.). MJ also received social work services (Id.). Finally on August 29, 2013, MJ underwent a psychological consultative exam with Dr. J.B. Goebel, Ph.D. ("Dr. Goebel"), where the chief complaint listed on the mental status evaluation and the diagnosis were both identified as ADHD (R. 376, 378).

         On February 15, 2014, pursuant to his application for benefits, MJ underwent a speech/language evaluation by Kristin Bilas, MHS CCC-SLP/L ("Ms. Bilas") (R. 379-83). Ms. Bilas reviewed the eligibility/IEP paperwork dated November 28, 2012 and also spoke with Ms. Gantner, who reported that MJ cannot pay attention and will not stop talking and misbehaving (R. 381). Ms. Bilas met with MJ and his siblings, and observed that they all "demonstrated extremely adverse behaviors, using foul language, screaming at each other and their aunt" (Id.). Once Ms. Bilas was alone with MJ, "he continued to demonstrate very impulsive, self-directed behavior and did not respond to redirection" (Id.). Her final summary and impression of MJ was that he would "continue to benefit from structured, small-group learning along with direct speech therapy and social work to increase the overall attention to improve auditory comprehension and pragmatic skills" (R. 383).

         On March 4 and 5, 2014, the state agency speech pathologist, Diane Lowry ("Ms. Lowry"), and psychological consultant, Dr. R. Leon Jackson ("Dr. Jackson") reviewed the evidence in the record up until that point in time and issued their Disability Determination Explanation at the Reconsideration level finding MJ not disabled (R. 78-86). Neither ...

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