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Owens v. Colvin

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

August 29, 2013

SHOCA SHON OWENS o/b/o Z.S.O., Plaintiff,


LINDA R. ANDERSON, Magistrate Judge.

Shoca Owens appeals the final decision denying the application for childhood Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits filed on behalf of her infant daughter, Z.S.O. Before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment [10] filed by Owens [hereinafter "Plaintiff"] and the Motion for an Order Affirming the Commissioner's Decision [12], pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), filed by Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security [hereinafter "Defendant"]. Having carefully considered the hearing transcript, the medical records in evidence, oral arguments, and all the applicable law, the undersigned recommends that the decision be remanded for the reasons that follow.

Facts and Procedural Background

Plaintiff's mother filed an application for SSI on August 3, 2009, alleging that her then nearly 4 ½ month-old daughter had been disabled since her birth on March 23, 2009. The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. She appealed the denial, and on October 12, 2010, Administrative Law Judge Louis J. Volz ("ALJ") rendered an unfavorable decision, finding that she had not established that her daughter was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review and she now appeals that decision.

Plaintiff was born two months prematurely on March 23, 2009, weighing two pounds, fourteen ounces. She was in critical but stable condition and treated for apnea, jaundice and hypernatremia. She was discharged 40 days later weighing approximately five pounds, three ounces. At her administrative hearing, she was approximately 17 months old. Her mother testified that she suffers from asthma and had to be treated as a newborn because she was developmentally delayed.

After reviewing all the evidence, the ALJ concluded that Z.S.O. was not disabled under the Social Security Act and was not entitled to childhood disability benefits pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a). At step one of the three-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Z.S.O. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 3, 2009, the application date. At steps two and three, the ALJ found that while Z.S.O.'s asthma and developmental delays secondary to her premature birth were severe, the medical evidence did not support listing-level severity. With regard to the six functional domains, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had less than marked limitations in health and physical well-being and no limitations in acquiring and using information, attending and completing tasks, interacting and relating with others, moving about and manipulating objects, and caring for herself.

Childhood Disability Standard

In order for a child to be found disabled and entitled to SSI benefits, he or she must have a "medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and which can be expected to result in death or 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). When evaluating a child's eligibility for disability benefits, an ALJ engages in a three-step sequential process, which considers:

(1) whether the child is doing substantial gainful activity;
(2) if not, whether the child has a medically determinable "severe" impairment or combination of impairments; and
(3) if so, whether the child's impairment or combination of impairments meets, medically equals, or functionally equals the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.

See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924 (b)-(d). If a child's impairment does not meet, medically equal, or functionally equal a listed impairment, the child will not be considered disabled. Functional equivalency is measured according to six domains of function: (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(b)(1); see also Harris v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 413, 417 (5th Cir. 2000) (citing Sullivan v. Zebley 493 U.S. 521, 530-32 (1990)). To be functionally equivalent to a listing, the impairment must result in either a "marked' limitation in two domains of functioning or an extreme' limitation in one domain...." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a). A marked limitation interferes seriously with the child's ability to "independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities, " while an extreme limitation "interferes very seriously with [the child's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities." 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.926a(e)(2)(i) & 416.926a(e)(3)(i).

Each domain also 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 ...

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