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Manker v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 26, 2018

Erika Manker, o/b/o C.E.K., minor, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Katherine Menendez United States Magistrate Judge

         In this case, Erika Manker appeals the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) denial of an application for disability benefits that she filed on behalf of her minor child, CEK. It is now before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. [Pl.'s Mot, ECF No. 18; Def.'s Mot., ECF No. 21.] Ms. Manker argues that the Commissioner's decision must be reversed because the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) misapplied the governing law in concluding that CEK is not disabled. She also argues that the ALJ's conclusion is not supported by substantial evidence. For the reasons that follow, Ms. Manker's motion is denied, the Commissioner's motion is granted, and this action is dismissed.

         I. Background[1]

         On October 30, 2013, when CEK was five years old, Ms. Manker filed an application for supplemental security income on his behalf. CEK has several severe impairments, including: an immune deficiency known as hypogammaglobinemia; asthma; celiac disease; esophageal esophagitis; food allergies; adjustment disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; posttraumatic stress disorder; and an overanxious disorder. CEK's immune disorder causes upper respiratory infections on a fairly regular basis and required the surgical implantation of a pump so that he could receive monthly infusions of medications. His celiac disease and food allergies require a very strict (and expensive) diet. Ms. Manker packs special meals for him to take to school and care must be taken to avoid contamination of his food with allergens. Despite his careful diet, he has experienced digestive problems including bowel issues and incontinence. CEK's mental impairments create challenges in the home. He has behaved violently toward his mother at times, refused to follow her instructions, thrown tantrums, and blamed himself for issues in the home. However, CEK is able to read and write at an above average level for his age, and his kindergarten teacher noticed no behavioral issues at school.

         CEK's application for benefits was initially denied on January 9, 2014, and Ms. Manker requested reconsideration of that decision. On reconsideration, Dr. Milford Schwartz evaluated the medical records provided to determine whether any of CEK's impairments alone, or in combination, meets or medically equals the severity of listed impairments, or functionally equals a listing. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d). For childhood disability cases, this required Dr. Schwartz to evaluate CEK's functioning across 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. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b). A child's “impairment(s) is of listing-level severity if [he] ha[s] ‘marked' limitations in two of the domains . . . or an ‘extreme' limitation in one domain.”[2] Id. § 416.926a(d). A child's impairment or combination of impairments must also meet “the duration requirement, ” id., which means that the impairment “must have lasted or must be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months, ” 20 C.F.R. § 416.909.

         Dr. Schwartz found that CEK had marked limitations in two of the six domains-“caring for yourself” and “health and physical well-being.” Despite finding marked limitations in these two domains, the reconsideration form indicates that CEK is “Not Disabled” in its “determination” section.[3] [AR 121.] On August 5, 2014, the SSA sent Ms. Manker a notice indicating that CEK's application was denied at the reconsideration level. [AR 130-34.] Ms. Manker requested a hearing before an ALJ.

         On August 6, 2015, ALJ Christel Ambuehl held a video hearing, and on January 28, 2016, she issued a written decision denying CEK's application based on the three-step sequential evaluation for childhood disability claims.[4] At the first two steps, the ALJ found that CEK had not engaged in substantial gainful activity and that he had the severe impairments identified above. At the third step, ALJ Ambuehl found that CEK does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments.[5] ALJ Ambuehl also evaluated the six domains governing functional equivalence. ALJ Ambuehl was ultimately “satisfied that the evidence does not reflect any full and continuous 12-month period wherein [CEK's] functioning fell below that identified throughout [her] decision.” [AR 28.] Accordingly, she concluded that CEK did not demonstrate functional equivalence and was not disabled.

         II. Legal Standard

         In a childhood disability case such as this, the Court “reviews a decision by an ALJ ‘to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.'” Pepper ex rel. Gardner v. Barnhart, 342 F.3d 853, 855 (8th Cir. 2003) (quoting Bailey v. Apfel, 230 F.3d 1063, 1065 (8th Cir. 2000), and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion.” England v. Astrue, 490 F.3d 1017, 1019 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 805 (8th Cir. 2004) (quoting Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 2000))). The substantial evidence standard requires the Court to consider evidence that supports the Commissioner's findings as well as evidence that detracts from the decision. Scott ex rel. Scott v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 818, 821 (8th Cir. 2008). However, “[i]f substantial evidence supports the decision, [the Court] will not reverse, even if substantial evidence could have been marshaled in support of a different outcome.” England, 490 F.3d at 1019.

         III. Discussion

         In her motion for summary judgment, Ms. Manker argues that the ALJ erred in the functional-equivalence determination. Because it is uncontested that CEK experiences marked limitations in the health and physical well-being domain, Ms. Manker focuses primarily on the ALJ's decision to discount Dr. Schwartz's finding of marked limitations in the “caring for yourself” domain.[6] [See Pl.'s Mem. at 3-16.] Therefore, “the pivotal issue [is] whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the finding that [CEK's] impairments do not rise to the . . . functional level of severity necessary to equal a disability listed in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P.” See Gardner, 230 F.3d at 855. For the reasons that follow, the Court affirms the ALJ's decision.

         A. Caring For Yourself

         The “caring for yourself” domain requires consideration of how well CEK maintains his emotional and physical health, including the ability to fulfill wants and needs, as well as cope with stress and change, and caring for his own health, possessions, and living area. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(k). This domain indicates that a preschool age child (3 to 6 years old) should “want to take care of many of [his] physical needs by [himself] (e.g., putting on your shoes, getting a snack), and also want to try doing some things that [he] cannot do fully (e.g., tying your shoes, climbing on a chair to get something up high, taking a bath).” Id. § 416.926a(k)(2)(iii). Evaluating the domain for such a child also contemplates that he will be more likely to follow instructions of a caregiver earlier in the age range than when he gets older and attains more independence. Id. A school-age child (6 to 12 years old) “should be independent in most day-to-day activites (e.g., dressing yourself, bathing yourself), although [he] may still need to be reminded sometimes to do these routinely.” Id. § 416.926a(k)(2)(iv). Such children: begin to realize they are capable of doing some activities, but not others; identify when they feel good or bad about themselves; understand differences between right and wrong, including behaviorally; and demonstrate control over behaviors. Id.

         Examples of limitations in this domain include:

(i) You continue to place non-nutritive or inedible objects in your mouth.
(ii) You often use self-soothing activities showing developmental regression (e.g., thumbsucking, re-chewing food), or you have restrictive or stereotyped mannerisms (e.g., body rocking, headbanging).
(iii) You do not dress or bathe yourself appropriately for your age because you have an impairment(s) that affects this domain.
(iv) You engage in self-injurious behavior (e.g., suicidal thoughts or actions, self-inflicted injury, or refusal to take your medication), or you ignore safety rules.
(v) You do not spontaneously pursue enjoyable activities or ...

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