Johnson v. Saul
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER: IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that: 1. Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment 23 is DENIED; and 2. Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED. LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY. (Written Opinion) Signed by The Hon. Paul A. Magnuson on 2/16/2021.(LLM)
CASE 0:20-cv-00682-PAM-DTS Doc. 28 Filed 02/16/21 Page 1 of 6
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA
Kassandra A. J.,
Civ. No. 20-682 (PAM/DTS)
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner
of Social Security,
This matter is before Court on the parties’ cross-Motions for Summary Judgment.
For the following reasons, Plaintiff’s Motion is denied and Defendant’s Motion is granted.
Plaintiff Kassandra A. J. is a child under the age of 18. Her mother brought this
lawsuit on Kassandra’s behalf after the Social Security Administration denied Kassandra’s
application for supplemental security income benefits.
Kassandra’s application for
benefits, filed in February 2018, 1 alleged that she had been disabled since October 2011,
by reason of autism spectrum disorder, hypothyroidism, mycoplasma pneumoniae, blood
Kassandra also filed an application for benefits in November 2014, amending that
application to allege a disability onset date of December 2014 and alleging impairments of
anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma, hypothyroidism,
and a learning disorder. (Admin. R. (Docket No. 20-3) at 125, 128-29.) That application
was denied in January 2018 after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (see id. at
125-142), but it appears from the record that the Commissioner reconsidered that decision
and allowed Kassandra to file a new application. Only that new application is at issue here.
CASE 0:20-cv-00682-PAM-DTS Doc. 28 Filed 02/16/21 Page 2 of 6
disorder, and neurological conditions causing low functioning in her upper extremities.
(Admin. R. (Docket No. 20-3) at 147-48.)
An individual under age 18 is considered disabled for purposes of Social Security
disability benefits 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 twelve months.”
42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i).
“[A] physical or mental
impairment is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological
abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques.” Id. § 1382c(a)(3)(D).
The Commissioner has established a sequential, three-step evaluation process to
determine whether a child is disabled.
20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a).
At step one, the
Commissioner determines whether the child is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.”
Id. If she is so engaged, the child will be considered not disabled. Id. If not, the
Commissioner “consider[s] [her] physical or mental impairment(s) first to see if [she has]
an impairment or combination of impairments that is severe.” Id. If the child has a severe
impairment, the Commissioner determines whether that “impairment(s) . . . meets,
medically equals, or functionally equals the listings” in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
App’x 1. Id. If the child’s impairment meets or equals one or more listings, and the
impairment “meets the duration requirement,” the Commissioner considers the child
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The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) determined after a hearing that Kassandra
had the following several severe impairments: asthma, sensory integration disorder or
sensory processing disorder, developmental delay, chronic pain syndrome, depression, and
anxiety. (Admin. R. (Docket No. 20-2) at 11.) The ALJ also noted that Kassandra’s
claimed impairments of hypothyroidism and mycoplasma pneumoniae were non-severe,
and that the medical records did not demonstrate the claimed impairments of a blood
disorder, neurological conditions causing upper extremity low functioning, or autism
spectrum disorder (“ASD”). (Id. at 11-12.) Much of the ALJ’s discussion as to this step
of the analysis focused on Kassandra’s ASD diagnosis, which the ALJ determined was
either not supported by the medical evidence or was non-severe “at most.” (Id. at 12.)
The ALJ then determined that none of Kassandra’s severe impairments met,
medically equaled, or functionally equaled the requirements of listed impairments. (Id. at
15-36.) The ALJ thus determined that Kassandra was not disabled. (Id. at 36-37.)
Kassandra brought this lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), after the Appeals Council
affirmed the ALJ’s determination that she was not disabled. She contends that the ALJ
erred in determining, contrary to the Commissioner’s independent medical expert, that the
medical records did not support her claim to suffer from ASD. She contends that her ASD
is a severe impairment and that the ALJ’s ultimate determination that she is not disabled is
therefore incorrect. She asks the Court to either award benefits or remand the case to the
ALJ for a full consideration of the medical evidence.
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The Court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to determining
whether that decision is “supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.”
McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000). “Substantial evidence . . . is more
than a mere scintilla.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S. Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (quotation
omitted). It is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Id. (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229
(1938)). This “threshold . . . is not high.” Id. “If, after reviewing the record, the court
finds it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those
positions represents the [ALJ’s] findings, the court must affirm the [ALJ’s] decision.”
Perks v. Astrue, 687 F.3d 1086, 1091 (8th Cir. 2012) (quotation omitted).
The ALJ exhaustively discussed the evidence in the record regarding Kassandra’s
ASD. In particular, the ALJ noted that, although clinicians at Fraser had diagnosed
Kassandra with ASD in September 2018, Kassandra’s teachers, school administrators, and
a neuropsychologist repeatedly disagreed with this conclusion. (Admin. R. (Docket No.
20-2) at 12.) As the ALJ highlighted, multiple evaluators noted the striking difference in
Kassandra’s demeanor when alone versus when her parents were present; Kassandra was
alone during the neuropsychological evaluation but her parents accompanied her during
the Fraser evaluation. (Id. at 12-13.). Although the neuropsychological evaluation was not
an autism-specific evaluation, many of the functions the clinician tested were the same as
those used to diagnose ASD, including use of non-verbal cues, eye contact, social
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functioning, and attention to the tasks at hand. (Id. at 12) And Kassandra’s treating
psychiatrist did not believe Kassandra had ASD. (Id. at 13.)
The ALJ quite properly weighed the conflicting evidence in the record and
determined that the record did not substantiate Kassandra’s ASD diagnosis. As the
Commissioner points out, this is the quintessential function of the ALJ, and it is not the
province of the Court to re-weigh the evidence. See Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 709
(8th Cir. 2007) (“It is the function of the ALJ to weigh conflicting evidence and to resolve
disagreements” in the medical records.). Rather, the Court determines only if there is
substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s decision. Here, there is more than substantial
evidence to support the ALJ’s determinations. This is not a case in which the medical
evidence points in one direction and the ALJ ignored that evidence. The evidence
regarding Kassandra’s ASD diagnosis is contradictory and conflicting. The ALJ properly
considered all evidence and, after hearing from Kassandra herself in addition to her mother
and the independent medical expert, determined that the record did not substantiate
Kassandra’s claim of a severe impairment because of ASD.
Further, the ALJ’s analysis regarding whether Kassandra’s impairments
functionally equaled the listings is not erroneous. Again, the question is not whether the
Court would come to the same conclusion as the ALJ, but rather whether the ALJ’s decision
is supported by substantial evidence. The ALJ clearly considered all evidence in the
record, thoroughly cataloging Kassandra’s voluminous medical records (id. at 22-34), and
determined that Kassandra did not have marked limitations as a result of her impairments.
(Id. at 21.) This decision is likewise supported by substantial evidence.
CASE 0:20-cv-00682-PAM-DTS Doc. 28 Filed 02/16/21 Page 6 of 6
Substantial evidence in the record supports the Commissioner’s decision to deny
benefits here. Accordingly, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that:
Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 23) is DENIED; and
Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 26) is GRANTED.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.
s/ Paul A. Magnuson
Date: February 16, 2021
Paul A. Magnuson
United States District Court Judge
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