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Richie v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 27, 2018

Marla Richie on behalf of E.T.C., Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Defendant.



         Plaintiff's mother brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner). Plaintiff filed an opening brief, Defendant responded, and Plaintiff replied. (Docs. 11, 12, 14.) The parties consented to exercise of jurisdiction by a Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). (Doc. 18.) Based on the pleadings and the administrative record, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.


         E.T.C.'s mother filed an application on his behalf for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on April 16, 2015. (Administrative Record (AR) 118.) E.T.C. was born on April 26, 1999, making him almost 16 years of age at the time his SSI application was submitted. (AR 118.) E.T.C. alleged disability from December 1, 2010.[1] (AR 118.) The application was denied upon initial review (AR 59-71) and on reconsideration (AR 72- 90). A hearing was held on March 29, 2016 (AR 32-57), after which the ALJ found that E.T.C. was not disabled (AR 13-26). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision. (AR 1-3.)

         The ALJ found that E.T.C. had three serious impairments, mood disorder, polysubstance abuse disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder. (AR 16.) He concluded that E.T.C. did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met, equaled or functionally equaled one of the listed impairments. (AR 17.) The ALJ determined that E.T.C. was markedly impaired in only one of the six functional equivalence domains, caring for yourself. (AR 24-25.) The ALJ found less than marked limitations in attending and completing tasks, and interacting and relating with others; and no limitations in the other three categories. (AR 20-26.)


         A person under the age of 18 will be considered disabled and eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) if he 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). The Commissioner employs a three-step sequential process to evaluate SSI claims for minors. First, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b). Second, if the claimant does not have a medically determinable severe impairment(s), in that the impairment does not cause more than minimal functional limitations, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 426.924(c). Third, if the claimant's impairment does not meet, medically equal, or functionally equal an impairment in the listings, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 426.924(d). There are six areas the Commissioner assesses for functional equivalence: acquiring and using information; attending and completing tasks; interacting and relating with others; moving about and manipulating objects; caring for yourself; and health and physical well-being. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b).

         The findings of the Commissioner are meant to be conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999) (quoting Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1018 (9th Cir. 1992)). The court may overturn the decision to deny benefits only “when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001). This is so because the ALJ “and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in the evidence, and if the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.” Matney, 981 F.2d at 1019 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 400 (1971)); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1198 (9th Cir. 2004). The Commissioner's decision, however, “cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1243 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989)). Reviewing courts must consider the evidence that supports as well as detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion. Day v. Weinberger, 522 F.2d 1154, 1156 (9th Cir. 1975).


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at Step One when evaluating substantial gainful activity (Plaintiff's Issue 2); the ALJ erred at Step Two in evaluating E.T.C.'s severe impairments (Plaintiff's Issue 3); and the ALJ erred at Step Three in not finding E.T.C. had a marked limitation in attending and completing tasks, which would have led to a finding that E.T.C. met or functionally equaled the listings (Plaintiff's Issues 1, 4, and 5). Throughout the opening brief, Plaintiff focuses on numerous inconsistencies in the ALJ's decision but most of them are not relevant to the arguments raised in the brief. Therefore, the Court addresses only the legal and factual findings by the ALJ that are relevant to the issues before the Court.[2]

         Step One: Substantial Gainful Activity

         Plaintiff argues that, in evaluating substantial gainful activity, the ALJ should not have mentioned E.T.C.'s testimony that he had worked side jobs and panhandled. Plaintiff argues these activities did not meet the guidelines for substantial gainful activity. After the ALJ cited E.T.C.'s testimony regarding ways he had obtained money in the past (AR 40, 45), the ALJ concluded that E.T.C. had NOT engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period. (AR 16.) Because the ALJ found the criteria for substantial gainful activity was not met, as argued by Plaintiff, there is no identified error with this finding.

         Step Two: Severe Impairments

         Plaintiff argues that, at Step Two, the ALJ “improperly dismissed E.T.C.'s severe impairments although evidence supports his impairments were severe despite substance abuse.” (Doc. 11 at 11.) Plaintiff further argues “the ALJ failed to adequately address the severe impairments.” (Id.) Step Two is a “de minimis screening device” used to identify all impairments (singly or in combination) with more than a minimal impact on a person's functioning. See Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996). After ...

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