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Elia v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 24, 2017

Kifa Elia, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge

         Plaintiff is a minor with rheumatoid arthritis. (AR 14, 17.) In February 2013, Plaintiff's mother, Kifa Elia, filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits on Plaintiff's behalf, alleging that Plaintiff's rheumatoid arthritis became disabling on February 20, 2013. (AR 14.) After state agency denials, Plaintiff and Elia appeared and testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (AR 32, 73, 83.) At the ALJ's request, pediatrician Daniel Weisman appeared and testified as a medical expert. (AR 32.) On January 13, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (AR 27.) The ALJ's decision became the agency's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, (AR 1), and this appeal followed. For the following reasons, the agency's decision is affirmed.

         I. Standard of Review

         The district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the agency's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The agency's decision must be upheld unless it is not supported by substantial evidence or is tainted by harmful legal error. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). “Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). The court, however, reviews “only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1010.

         II. Procedure for Evaluating Childhood SSI Cases

         A minor is considered disabled under the Social Security Act if she “has 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 minor claimant's disability application, the agency follows a three-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Id. § 416.924(a). If so, the inquiry ends and the claimant is not disabled. Id. § 416.924(b). If, however, the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the ALJ proceeds to step two and determines whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments. Id. § 416.924(a). If the claimant is not severely impaired, she is not disabled. Id. § 416.924(c). If the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the ALJ proceeds to the final step and determines whether the claimant's impairment(s) meets, medically equals, or functionally equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 (Part B) to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. Id. § 416.924(a), (d). In determining whether the claimant's condition functional equals a listed impairment, the ALJ assesses the claimant's functioning in six 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 yourself; and (6) health and physical well-being. Id. § 416.926a(b). A claimant's condition functionally equals a listed impairment if it results in marked limitations in at least two domains or an extreme limitation in one. Id. § 416.926a(d). If a claimant's condition does not meet, medically equal, or functionally equal a listed impairment, she is not disabled.

         III. Discussion

         At steps one and two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date and that her rheumatoid arthritis is a severe impairment. (AR 17.) At step three, however, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's condition neither meets, medically equals, nor functionally equals a listed impairment. (AR 17.) In so doing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not markedly limited in any of the six domains of functioning. (AR 21-27.) The ALJ therefore concluded that that she was not disabled. (AR 27.)

         Plaintiff does not challenge the ALJ's conclusion that her rheumatoid arthritis does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, nor does she challenge the ALJ's assessment of her functioning in domains one, two, three, and five. She challenges only the ALJ's findings that she has less than marked functional limitations in domains four (moving about and manipulating objects) and six (health and physical well-being).

         Domain four considers a minor claimant's ability to use motor skills freely and to travel around school and the community. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(j)(2)(v). Minors “should be able to participate in a full range of individual and group physical activities, ” “show mature skills in activities requiring eye-hand coordination, ” and “have the fine motor skills needed to write efficiently or type on a keyboard.” Id. Domain six considers “the cumulative physical effects of physical or mental impairments and their associated treatments or therapies on [a claimant's] functioning[.]” § 416.926a(1).

Unlike the other five domains of functional equivalence (which address a child's abilities), this domain does not address typical development and functioning. Rather, the . . . domain addresses how such things as recurrent illness, the side effects of medication, and the need for ongoing treatment affect a child's body; that is, the child's health and sense of physical well-being.

Social Security Ruling (SSR) 09-8p, 2009 WL 396030, at *2. A claimant's impairment(s) result in marked limitations if it “interferes seriously” with the claimant's “ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(2)(i).

         Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has less than marked limitations in moving about and manipulating objects:

This finding is supported by the claimant's testimony during the hearing. For instance, the claimant indicated she was able to ride a bicycle, swim, dress herself, bathe, tie her shoes, and prepare simple meals, like cereal or toast. As well, the claimant indicated she can do dishes. She has played three soccer games with the most recent one occurring approximately one month prior to the hearing. Findings upon physical examinations show of minimal abnormal findings (Exhibits 1F & 6F). Moreover, the claimant frequently denied any symptoms to treating physicians. This conclusion is further supported by the opinion of the claimant's teacher (Exhibit 5E).

(AR 25.) Likewise, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has less than marked limitations in health and physical well-being:

The claimant is currently treated with medication and occasional injections for juvenile arthritis (Exhibits 1F & 6F). She is seen approximately every 2-3 months for medication management and follow up. The claimant rarely offers complaints and clinical findings are somewhat minimal. Thus, treatment has been fairly conservative in nature. The claimant is doing well in school and she testified to maintaining general normal activities of daily living (Exhibits 5E and Claimant's Testimony). Finally the conclusion reached herein is consistent with that of the reviewing physicians for the State agency (Exhibits 2A & 4A).

(AR 26-27.) In making these findings, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by: (1) rejecting the opinion of Dr. Wiseman; (2) giving greater weight to the opinions of the state agency reviewers than to the opinion of Dr. Wiseman; (3) giving greater weight to the lay opinion of Plaintiff's teacher than to the medical opinions in the record; and (4) discounting Plaintiff's testimony concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms. (Docs. 24, 29.) The Court addresses each issue in turn.

         A. Dr. ...

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