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Ashleigh C. v. Saul

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

October 4, 2019

ASHLEIGH C., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Ashleigh C. seeks to overturn the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and Plaintiff filed a brief explaining why the case should be reversed or remanded. The Commissioner responded with a competing memorandum in support of affirming the decision. After careful review of the record, the Court grants judgment in favor of the Commissioner.


         Plaintiff's father applied for SSI on his minor daughter's behalf on June 9, 2008, alleging disability since January 1, 2006 due to a variety of mental impairments. (R. 236). Born in August 1999, Plaintiff was a school-age child (nearly 9 years old) at the time of the application. (R. 213). On March 11, 2010, administrative law judge (“ALJ”) Adrian Diane Horowitz found that Plaintiff's attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), learning disability, and adjustment disorder caused marked limitations in acquiring and using information, and in attending and completing tasks. (R. 87). As a result, Plaintiff was disabled from the January 1, 2006 alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (R. 87-90).

         Plaintiff received Child SSI benefits until August 30, 2015, at which point the Social Security Administration determined that the then 16-year-old adolescent was no longer disabled. (R. 14, 91-92). A State agency Disability Hearing Officer upheld that decision on August 30, 2016. (R. 161-74). Plaintiff's grandmother filed a timely request for a hearing, and both she and her granddaughter, appearing pro se, provided testimony before ALJ William Spalo on April 26, 2017. (R. 38-40). Six months later, on October 12, 2017, the ALJ found that Plaintiff experienced medical improvement as of August 30, 2015, and that she had not become disabled again after that date. (R. 14-29). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner and, therefore, reviewable by this Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).

         In this appeal, Plaintiff seeks to recover Child SSI from August 30, 2015 through August 31, 2017, the date she turned 18 and needed to be re-evaluated as an adult. (Doc. 24, at 7). In support of her request for reversal or remand under sentence four of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ: (1) erred in weighing the opinions from two of her treating physicians; and (2) improperly concluded that she experienced medical improvement as of August 30, 2015. Alternatively, Plaintiff asks the Court to remand the case under sentence six of the Act for consideration of new evidence. For reasons discussed in this opinion, the Court finds that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and there are no errors warranting reversal or remand. In addition, Plaintiff's new evidence is not material and so does not support a remand pursuant to sentence six.


         A. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act. In reviewing this decision, the court may not engage in its own analysis of whether Plaintiff is severely impaired as defined by the Social Security Regulation. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Nor may it “displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence or making credibility determinations. Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926 (7th Cir. 2010) (quoting Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007)). The court “will reverse an ALJ's determination only when it is not supported by substantial evidence, meaning ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 361-62 (7th Cir. 2013) (quoting McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 889 (7th Cir. 2011)).

         In making its determination, the court must “look to whether the ALJ built an ‘accurate and logical bridge' from the evidence to [his] conclusion that the claimant is not disabled.” Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 513 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008)). The ALJ need not, however, “'provide a complete written evaluation of every piece of testimony and evidence.'” Pepper, 712 F.3d at 362 (quoting Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)). Where the Commissioner's decision, “‘lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review,' a remand is required.” Hopgood ex rel. L.G. v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 696, 698 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002)).

         B. Framework for Child SSI Benefits

         A child is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act if she 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). In determining whether a child meets this definition, the ALJ engages in a three-step analysis: (1) if the child is engaged in substantial gainful activity, then her claim is denied; (2) if the child does not suffer from a severe impairment or combination of impairments, then her claim is denied; and (3) the child's impairments must meet, medically equal, or be functionally equal to any of the Listings of Impairments contained in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1., 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b)-(d). See also Giles ex rel. Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 486 (7th Cir. 2007).

         To determine whether an impairment functionally equals a listing, the ALJ must assess its severity in six age-appropriate categories: (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(b)(1). Each domain describes what a child should be able to do throughout five age categories: (1) “newborns and young infants” (birth to age 1); (2) “older infants and toddlers” (age 1 to age 3); (3) “preschool children” (age 3 to age 6, including children in kindergarten but not first grade); (4) “school-age children” (age 6 to age 12, including children in first grade through middle school); and (5) “adolescents” (age 12 to age 18). 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(g)(2), (h)(2), (i)(2), (j)(2), (k)(2), (l)(2).

         An impairment functionally equals a listing if it results in “marked” limitations in two domains of functioning, or an “extreme” limitation in one domain. A marked limitation “interferes ‘seriously' with the child's ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities in the domain, and an ‘extreme' limitation interferes ‘very seriously.'” Buckhanon ex rel. J.H. v. Astrue, 368 Fed.Appx. 674, 679 (7th Cir. 2010). The functional equivalence analysis requires the ALJ to consider how the child functions as a whole. “[T]his consists of looking at all of the child's activities, which include everything the child does at home, at school, and in her community, and evaluating how the child is limited or restricted in those activities, without cabining the child's impairments into any particular domain.” Bielefeldt ex rel. Wheelock, No. 09 C 50302, 2011 WL 3360013, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 4, 2011) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)-(c)).

         C. ...

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