United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Greenville Division
S. ALLAN ALEXANDER, Magistrate Judge.
This case involves an application under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying plaintiff David Tyler Gonzalez's application for a period of disability (POD) and supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Docket 9. The court has jurisdiction over plaintiff's claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Because both parties have consented to have a magistrate judge conduct all proceedings in this case as provided in 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the undersigned has the authority to issue this opinion and the accompanying final judgment.
The plaintiff's mother filed this action on behalf of her son. The plaintiff was born January 8, 2005. His mother filed his initial application for child's Title XVI benefits on January 30, 2012, when he was seven years old, citing attention deficit disorder ("ADHD") and behavioral issues. Docket 9, p. 56, 70. The application alleged that the plaintiff's disability began around January 1, 2008. Docket 9, p. 70.
The agency administratively denied the application initially on March 23, 2012 ( id. at 42) and upon reconsideration on April 6, 2012, finding the child to be somewhat limited but not so severely limited to qualify for disability benefits. Id. at 42, 49. Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held on February 13, 2013. Id. at 30. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on March 11, 2013 ( Id. at 12-26), and the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for a review on May 29, 2014, Id. at 4-6. Plaintiff's mother proceeded without legal representation throughout the application and appeals process until she sought judicial review of the Commissioner's decision.
After securing legal counsel, the plaintiff timely filed the instant appeal from the decision. The plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in (i) assessing the plaintiff's six domains, (ii) allowing the plaintiff's mother to proceed without an attorney, and (iii) not considering evidence from other sources. Docket 15.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The court considers on appeal whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner used the correct legal standard. Crowley, 197 F.3d at 196, citing Austin v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1170 (5th Cir. 1993); Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990). In making that determination, the court has the responsibility to scrutinize the entire record. Ransom v. Heckler, 715 F.2d 989, 992 (5th Cir. 1983). The court has limited power of review and may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. 1988), even if it finds the evidence leans against the Commissioner's decision. See Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434 (5th Cir. 1994); see also Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988). In the Fifth Circuit, substantial evidence, "must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be established, but no substantial evidence' will be found only where there is a conspicuous absence of credible choices' or no contrary medical evidence.'" Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988), quoting Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983).
Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to decide, and if there is substantial evidence to support the decision, it must be affirmed even if there is evidence on the other side. Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990). The court's inquiry is whether the record, as a whole, provides sufficient evidence that would allow a reasonable mind to accept the ALJ's conclusions. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Crowley, 197 F.3d at 197. "If supported by substantial evidence, the decision of the [Commissioner] is conclusive and must be affirmed." Paul v. Shalala, 29 F.3d 208, 210 (5th Cir. 1994), citing Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390.
However, this standard of review is not a rubber stamp for the Commissioner's decision. Satisfying the standard involves more than a basic search for evidence supporting the findings of the Commissioner. The court must scrutinize the record and take into account whatever fairly detracts from the substantiality of evidence supporting the ALJ's findings. Austin v. Shalala, 994 F.2d at 1174, citing Tome v. Schweiker, 724 F.2d 711, 713 (8th Cir.1984); see also Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488, 71 S.Ct. 456, 464, 95 L.Ed. 456 (1951); see also Martin v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 1027, 1031 (5th Cir.1984).
The ALJ made his determination under the rules adopted by the Social Security Administration in accordance with the changes to children's disability benefits in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c. To be considered disabled under the Act a child must have a "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). To evaluate the ALJ's determination, this court finds it necessary to outline the process of determining children's disability under these rules.
In assessing a child's alleged disability, the Commissioner, through an ALJ, must work through a three-step sequential evaluation process used specifically to determine whether a child meets the disability criteria. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924 (2004). The burden rests upon the plaintiff to prove disability at all stages of the proceedings. First, the ALJ determines whether the child is working. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b) (2006). Second, the ALJ decides whether the child has a medically determinable "severe" impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). Finally, at step three, for a finding of disabled, the ALJ must conclude the child's impairment or combination of impairments meets, medically equals or functionally equals the severity of an impairment listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1, §§ 1.00-114.02. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924(d) & 416.925 (2006). If plaintiff's impairment is severe but does not meet or equal in severity of a Listing, the ALJ must then undertake a Functional Equivalence Analysis ("FEA") to determine whether the impairment is "functionally equal in severity to a listed impairment." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a).
An FEA requires the fact-finder to perform analysis and reach findings that deal in six functional domains: (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)(i-vi)(2007). "An impairment(s) causes marked and severe functional limitations if it meets or medically equals the severity of a set of criteria for an impairment in the listings, or if it functionally equals the listings." 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d)(2006). A medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments ...