Mason v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER that the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiff benefits is AFFIRMED. Signed by Magistrate Judge Katherine P. Nelson on 2/9/2015. (srr)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
o/b/o R.P.C., Jr.,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, )
Civil Action No. 14-00159-N
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Beulah Mason brings this action on behalf of minor Claimant R.P.C.,
Jr., pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of a final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for
supplemental security income (“SSI”). The parties have consented to the exercise of
jurisdiction by, and this case has been ordered referred to, the undersigned United
States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings in this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
636(c). See Docs. 15, 16.
Upon consideration of the administrative record (“R.”) (docs. 9, 12), Plaintiff’s
Brief (Doc. 10), the Commissioner’s Brief (Doc. 11), and the arguments presented at
the hearing held November 4, 2014 (cf. Docs. 18-19), the Court has determined that
the Commissioner’s decision denying Plaintiff’s benefits should be AFFIRMED.1
Any appeal taken from this memorandum opinion and order and simultaneously entered
separate judgment may be made directly to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. See 28
U.S.C. § 636(c)(3); FED. R. CIV. P. 73(c)
Plaintiff filed applications for SSI on behalf of Claimant, R.P.C. Jr., her child,
in July 2010 (see R. 132-135), alleging a disability onset date of August 1, 2009. See
R. 132. The application was initially denied. See R. 76-79. A hearing was conducted
before Administrative Law Judge Linda J. Helm (“ALJ”) on January 11, 2012. See R.
47-73. On March 19, 2012, the ALJ issued the decision, now before this Court,
finding Claimant not disabled. R. 20-42. The Appeals Council issued a decision
declining to review the ALJ’s determination on February 21, 2014. See Doc. 12 at
3-5. The Commissioner’s decision being final for purposes of judicial review (see 20
C.F.R. § 404.981), a complaint was filed in this Court on April 7, 2014. See Doc. 1.
Claims on Appeal
Plaintiff asserts that the Commissioner’s decision to deny benefits is in error
“by failing to adequately consider school records and reports from the child
claimant’s teachers that unmistakably indicated a finding of at least [two marked
limitations].” Doc. 10 at 3.
Standard of Review
In reviewing claims brought under the Act, this Court's role is a limited one.
The Court's review is limited to determining 1) whether the decision of the Secretary
is supported by substantial evidence and 2) whether the correct legal standards were
applied. Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir .1990). A court may not
decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of
the Commissioner. Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir.1986). The
Commissioner's findings of fact must be affirmed if they are based upon substantial
evidence. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1235 (11th Cir.1991); Bloodsworth v.
Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir .1983) (holding substantial evidence is
defined as “more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance” and consists of
“such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support
a conclusion.”). In determining whether substantial evidence exists, a court must
view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable, as well as
unfavorable, to the Commissioner's decision. Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131
(11th Cir.1986); Short v. Apfel, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10163, *4 (S.D. Ala. June 14,
Childhood Disability Law
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which
amended the statutory standard for children seeking supplemental security income
benefits based on disability, became effective on August 22, 1996. See Pub. L. No.
104–193, 110 Stat. 2105 § 211(b)(2) (1996) (codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1382c). Under the
Act, the definition of “disabled” child is:
An individual under the age of 18 shall be considered disabled ... if that
individual 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.
See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i), 20 C.F.R. § 416.906.2 The regulations provide a
On September 11, 2000, the Commissioner published Final Rules for determining disability for a
child under the age of 18. See 65 Fed.Reg. 54,747, corrected by 65 Fed.Reg. 80,307. These rules
became effective on January 2, 2001, and apply to Plaintiff's claim. See 65 Fed.Reg. at 54,751.
three-step sequential evaluation process for determining childhood disability claims.
20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a).
At step one, a child's age and work activity, if any, are identified to determine
if he has engaged in substantial gainful activity. At step two, the child's
physical/mental impairments are examined to see if he has an impairment or
combination of impairments that is severe. Under the regulations, a severe
impairment is one that is more than “a slight abnormality or a combination of slight
abnormalities that causes no more than minimal functional limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §
416.924(c). To the extent the child is determined to have a severe impairment, at
step three, the Commissioner must then determine whether the impairment or
combination of impairments meets or is medically or functionally equal to an
impairment listed in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, and otherwise
satisfies the duration requirement.3 20 CFR § 416.924.
A child's impairment(s) meets the listings' limitations if he actually suffers
from limitations specified in the listings for his severe impairment. Shinn v.
Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 391 F.3d 1276, 1279 (11th Cir.2004). A child's
impairment(s) medically equals the listings if his limitations are at least of equal
severity and duration to the listed impairment(s). Id. (citing 20 CFR § 416.926).
Where a child's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or
medically equal any listing, then the Commissioner must determine whether the
In making this determination the ALJ considers the combined effect of all medically determinable
impairments, even those that are not severe. See 20 CFR 416.923, 416.924a(b)(4), and 416.926a(a)
impairment or combination of impairments results in limitations that functionally
equal the listings.4 20 CFR § 416.926a.
To establish functional equivalence in step three, the claimant must have a
medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that results in
marked limitations in at least two functional domains or an extreme limitation in
one domain. 20 CFR § 416.926a(d). The six domains are: (1) acquiring and using
information; (2) attending and completing tasks; (3) interacting and relating to
others; (4) moving about and manipulating objects; (5) caring for oneself; and (6)
health and physical well-being. 20 CFR 416.926a(b)(1).
In her opinion, the ALJ found that Claimant had “marked” limitations in one
category, (ii) attending and completing tasks, and had “less than marked”
limitations in four categories: (i) acquiring and using information; (iii) interacting
and relating with others; (v) caring for yourself; and (vi) health and physical
well-being. R. at 30, 33, 35, 40, 41. The ALJ found that Claimant had “no limitation”
in one category, (iv) moving and manipulating objects. R. at 39. Plaintiff argues that
the ALJ should have found an additional “marked” limitation in either (i) acquiring
and using information or (iii) interacting and relating with others. Doc. 10 at 3.
Plaintiff makes this contention based on two claims: (1) that the ALJ did not fully
In making this assessment, the reports of the State Agency medical consultants, reports of other
treating, examining, and non-examining medical sources, and the claimant's symptoms, including
pain and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the
objective medical evidence and other evidence, are all taken into consideration. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.927,
416.929; and SSR 96–5, 96–6p and 96–7p.
consider reports from the Claimant’s teachers, but rather “cherry picks” from them
and (2) that the ALJ did not properly consider the Claimant’s significantly
below-average IQ score of 73. Id. at 4-5.
The Commissioner argues that Plaintiff concedes that the ALJ discussed and
considered the evidence in question (Plaintiff’s Brief at 2-5) but maintains that she
failed to give it proper weight. This, argues the Commissioner “is essentially a
request for this Court to perform a de novo review of the evidence based on
[Plaintiff’s] disagreement with the ALJ’s decision.” (Doc. 11 at 5)
The ALJ’s opinion does not reflect that she “cherry picked” from the relevant
teacher reports, but rather that she considered the record as a whole. Pursuant to 20
CFR 416.924a(a), the ALJ considered “all of the relevant evidence in the case record .
. . [including] information from other sources, such as school teachers . . .” R. at 26.
This includes examining reports from teachers in many places. R. at 29-42. Teacher
reports are not considered determinative, but rather are “consider[ed]” alongside
other information. 20 CFR 416.924a(b)(7)(ii). The ALJ relied on significant portions
of the Claimant’s teachers’ reports in making her decision. R at 31-32; 34-35; 37-38;
40. Where the ALJ gives less weight to the opinions expressed in teacher reports, she
states specific reasons for those weight determinations, including the relatively
short time a teacher had observed the Claimant, or the lack of information given by
some teachers as to how long they knew Claimant, the frequency of their contacts
with him, or what subjects they taught. R. at 28-29.
Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ failed to consider the Claimant’s low IQ
score. Although IQ scores may support a finding of a marked or extreme limitation in
a functional domain, IQ scores alone are not outcome-determinative. See 20 C.F.R. §
416.926a(e)(4)(i) (“we will not rely on any test score alone”). Rather, the evidence as
a whole must be considered, and a finding of less than marked limitations may be
The ALJ discussed the Claimant’s score of 73, as well as a higher score of 79,
and noted that these scores “do not reflect marked limitations.” R. at 30. For any
objective test designed to measure abilities within a functional domain, a “marked
limitation” is indicated by a “valid score that is two standard deviations or more
below the mean, but less than three standard deviations.” 20 C.F.R. §
416.926a(e)(2)(iii). The IQ tests administered to the claimant were Wechsler series
tests (R. at 329), which have a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15. 20 C.F.R.
Part 404, subpt. P, app. 1, § 112.00, ¶ D.9. Thus, in order to be two or more standard
deviations below the mean, a score would have to be 70 or below. See id. Claimant’s
score of 73 is less than two standard deviations below average and is therefore not
indicative of a marked limitation. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(iii). Since RPC’s
scores are not low enough to meet the regulatory criteria indicating possible marked
limitation, and any failure by the ALJ to provide a more detailed discussion of this
point was therefore harmless error.
The law is well settled that even if there is evidence in the record to support
an alternative finding, the court must uphold the decision of the ALJ if there is
substantial evidence in the record to support the decision. Crawford v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 118-59 (11th Cir. 2004) (“Even if the evidence
preponderates against the Commissioner’s findings, we must affirm if the decision
reached is supported by substantial evidence.”) Upon consideration, the undersigned
finds that substantial evidence exists in the record to support the ruling of the ALJ.
Accordingly, it is ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security denying Plaintiff benefits is AFFIRMED.
DONE and ORDERED this the 9th day of February 2015.
/s/ Katherine P. Nelson
KATHERINE P. NELSON
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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