United States District Court, D. Arizona
JAMES A. TEILBORG, Senior District Judge.
Plaintiff Armentha Hooker, mother of minor claimant Z.H., appeals a denial of benefits by the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Court now rules on this appeal.
A. Procedural History
Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on May 28, 2009 on behalf of her minor daughter, Z.H., alleging Z.H.'s disability beginning May 26, 2009. The claim was denied on September 15, 2009, and again upon reconsideration on January 13, 2010. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was conducted by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on April 17, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona.
B. Factual Background
Z.H. began seeing mental health professionals in 2007 at the age of five due to behavioral problems at home and school. Specifically, Plaintiff reported to a psychologist, Herb Brenden, Ed.D, L.P., that Z.H. had trouble focusing and following directions and became violent with peers and teachers. Dr. Brenden referred Z.H. to a psychiatrist, Dexter D. Whittemore, M.D., and Z.H. was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD") and oppositional defiant disorder ("ODD"). Dr. Whittemore prescribed Daytrana 15 mg and noted improvements in focus, organization, and impulsivity. At one point during Z.H.'s treatment with Dr. Whittemore, Z.H.'s father reported that she was doing "generally well" with the treatment plan, but Z.H.'s teachers, continued to report behavioral problems.
In 2009, when she was seven years old, Z.H. qualified for special education services in her school district in Minnesota, which included intermittent attendance in special education classes and a behavioral intervention plan. Between 2009 and 2010, Z.H.'s parents and teachers reported periods of improvement and periods of increased violent, disruptive, and impulsive behavior. Dr. Whittemore eventually added Ritalin to Z.H.'s treatment plan.
Plaintiff and Z.H. moved to Arizona in 2010 and saw a psychiatrist, Edwin A. Perez, M.D., in October 2010, seven months after Z.H.'s last appointment with Dr. Whittemore. Z.H.'s new school district in Arizona placed Z.H. on an "individual education plan, " under which Z.H.'s teacher reported steady improvements.
Dr. Perez completed an assessment of Z.H.'s limitations on June 30, 2011, in which he concluded that Z.H. had marked limitations in motor functioning, social functioning, and concentration, persistence, or pace. Z.H.'s fourth grade teacher in Arizona, Ms. Linda Foster, filled out a similar assessment, concluding that Z.H. had marked limitations in cognitive/communicative functioning and concentration, persistence, or pace as well as an extreme limitation in social functioning. At the hearing, a non-examining medical expert, Raymond E. Moore, Ph.D, testified that Z.H. did not have any marked or extreme limitations. Plaintiff also testified at the hearing, stating that Z.H. inflicts physical harm on others and herself, takes abnormally long to do her homework, has trouble focusing, and is generally defiant toward adults.
A. Three-Step Evaluation Process
The ALJ follows a three-step process to evaluate whether a child is disabled. First, the ALJ determines whether the child is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a), (b). If the child is engaged in substantial gainful activity, then she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b). Second, the ALJ determines whether the child has a "medically determinable impairment(s) that is severe." 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). For purposes of this step, "a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that causes no more than minimal functional limitations" does not constitute a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). If the child has no severe, medically determinable impairment, the she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). Finally, the ALJ must determine whether the child's impairment "meet[s], medically equal[s], or functionally equal[s] the listings." 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d). The impairment medically equals a listed impairment if "it is at least equal in severity and duration to the criteria of any listed impairment." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926(a); Howard ex rel. Wolff v. Barnhart, 341 F.3d 1006, 1012 (9th Cir. 2003). The impairment is functionally equivalent to a listed impairment if the child has a "marked" limitation in two areas or an "extreme" limitation in one area. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a (a); Howard, 341 F.3d at 1012.
In making disability determinations, the ALJ must "develop the record and interpret the medical evidence." Howard, 341 F.3d at 1012 (citing Crane v. Shalala, 76 F.3d 251, 255 (9th Cir. 1996)). In doing do, however, "the ALJ does not need to discuss every piece of evidence.'" Id. (citing Black v. Apfel, 143 F.3d 383, ...