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Delores J. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

August 19, 2019

Delores J., on behalf of Q.J.J., Jr. Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Delores J., on behalf of minor Q.J.J., Jr., seeks review of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's (the “Commissioner”) denial of the claimant's application for supplemental security income (“SSI”).[2] See generally (Compl. [Doc. No. 1].) The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [Doc. No. 14]; Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [Doc. No. 16].) For the reasons set forth below, the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied and the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Claimant Q.J.J., Jr., was a seven-year old child when Plaintiff filed for SSI on his behalf on February 27, 2014. See, e.g., (R. 194-202). Plaintiff alleged the claimant was disabled due to ADHD, emotional behavior disorder, and asthma. See, e.g., (id. at 230.) Plaintiff asserted an alleged onset date (“AOD”) of June 15, 2011. (Id.)

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 17, 2017. (R. 19-48). Pursuant to the three-step sequential evaluation procedure outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a) for disability determinations for a minor seeking benefits, the ALJ first determined that the claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since at least his AOD of June 16, 2011. (R. 23, 25.) At step two, the ALJ determined that the claimant had severe impairments of “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ‘ADHD', anxiety disorder-not otherwise specified also classified as an adjustment disorder and asthma.” (Id. 25.) The ALJ found at the third step that no impairment or combination of impairments met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. (Id. 25-41). He then considered whether the claimant's impairments functionally equaled Listing 112.11. In that analysis, the ALJ considered six functional equivalence domains, as prescribed by 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.926a(g)-(1): 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 oneself; and 6) health and physical well-being. (Id. 30-41.)

         With respect to interacting and relating with others, the ALJ found the claimant had marked limitations. (Id. 34.) As part of this analysis, the ALJ relied on statements from his teachers that he became easily frustrated and relied on adult support to deescalate. (Id.) The ALJ gave these statements great weight because they were consistent with and supported by substantial evidence. (Id. 35.) However, the ALJ found the claimant did not have marked limitations with respect to any other functional equivalence domain. Thus, after considering the six functional equivalence domains, the ALJ concluded that “the claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that result in either ‘marked' limitations in two domains of functioning or ‘extreme' limitation in one domain of function.” (Id. 41.) As a result, the ALJ concluded the claimant's impairments did not functionally equal a listing, and he was therefore not disabled. (Id. 42.)

         Specifically, and pertinent to the challenges raised by Plaintiff here, the ALJ found the claimant had no limitation in the domain of his ability to care for himself. (Id. 38- 40.) In support of this determination, the ALJ concluded the claimant “had no problems with taking care of personal hygiene, caring for physical needs, or cooperating in taking medications.” (Id. 38.) The ALJ also relied on statements from Plaintiff that the claimant was required to put his clothes away, take his dog out and take out the trash, ” and that the claimant “could dress himself, comb his hair, and tie his shoes.” (Id. 38-39.) The ALJ gave little weight to the opinions of claimant's teachers that the claimant had serious limitations in this area due to his inability to handle his frustrations properly, be patient when necessary, and respond appropriately to changes in mood. The ALJ explained that he gave those opinions little weight because these concerns were reflected in the ALJ's “findings of Attending and Completing Tasks and Interacting and Relating to Others as they appear to be closely related to claimant's ADHD diagnosis and treatment.” (Id. 39.)

         Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request. (R. 1- 6). The ALJ's decision therefore became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id.); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review.

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in evaluating the claimant's impairments and in determining that the claimant is not disabled because, inter alia, “the ALJ never considered the highly supportive environment within which [the claimant] functioned and he cherry-picked evidence to support his findings.” (Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. [Doc. No. 15 at 19].)

         B. Factual Background [3]

         1. Plaintiff's Testimony

         At a hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff testified on behalf of the claimant. (R. 68- 71, 82-84). Plaintiff, the claimant's grandmother and guardian, testified that she has been responsible for the claimant since he was five. (R. 68.) Plaintiff stated that clamant has problems staying on task at school, that he “got a new IEP” and they are

trying to work something out inside his classroom and outside the classroom to kind of keep him focused but I did give them the authority to give him his meds in the morning and . . . before he comes home. He has to have those to quiet him down.

(Id. 68-69.) Plaintiff testified that the claimant takes five milligrams of Adderall twice a day-in the morning and after lunch. (Id. 69.) Claimant takes a “special education bus” to and from school. (Id.) He has more issues in the morning than in the afternoon while on the bus. (Id.) In the morning, issues include “staying in his seatbelt, ” and “letting the windows down.” (Id.) In the afternoon, “he quiets down after the medication, ” and when he comes home, “he kind of goes right to sleep.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff also testified about a number of behavioral issues the claimant has exhibited at school. She recounted confrontations with his teachers, one of which involved a call from the principal because “he was chasing the teacher through the classroom” and “[t]hey didn't know if he was serious or playing.” (Id. 70.) His behavior has resulted in numerous suspensions and an expulsion. (Id. 69.) Plaintiff also testified that the claimant became “so angry at school that he head butted [sic] the wall and his tooth chipped.” (Id. 70.)

         At home, Plaintiff and the claimant live with two of Plaintiff's other grandchildren. (Id.) The claimant has demonstrated behavioral problems at home as well. Plaintiff testified by way of example that he got very angry and punched the wall if he was frustrated about things that occurred at school. (Id. 71.)

         Regarding the claimant's impairments due to asthma, Plaintiff testified that the claimant had an asthma attack that led to a hospital visit in 2015, and that now he is on a steroid inhaler. (Id. 82.)

         At the hearing, Plaintiff also responded to questions from the testifying medical expert, Michael Lace, Psy.D. (Id. 71-74.) In response to Dr. Lace's inquiries, Plaintiff testified that the claimant had not been hospitalized overnight for psychiatric reasons, he sees a one-on-one therapist every two weeks, and with the exception of when he punched the wall police have not been involved with the claimant. (Id.) Police were called in response to the wall-punching incident and the claimant was taken to Children's Hospital for physical treatment and evaluation. (Id. 74.)

         2. Medical Expert Testimony

         Dr. Lace testified before the ALJ to his opinion of the claimant's impairments. (Id. 74-82.) First, Dr. Lace opined that the record “describes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.” (Id. 74-75.) Dr. Lace also believed that the claimant presented with “an adjustment disorder, not otherwise specified or with anxiety or depression.” (Id. 75.)

         In terms of severity, Dr. Lace opined that the claimant's impairments did not meet the requirements of any of the Listings. (Id. 76.) In support, Dr. Lace pointed to the claimant's GAF scores in the mid-sixties to mid-seventies, although he acknowledged a GAF score of 44, which he considered to be an outlier. (Id. 75.) Dr. Lace also discussed the teacher questionnaires that were in the record but noted that “none of those noted uniformly severe interactions with others.” (Id.) Dr. Lace described the claimant's mental status exams which were “largely within normal limits, ” although he did admit that “some fidgeting [was] noted.” (Id.) Dr. Lace also referred to physician treatment notes that stated the claimant was “doing well on current medications with good mental status and so forth.” (Id.) In further support, Dr. Lace pointed to a notation in the record that the claimant should take “days off of the medication, especially in the summer to avoid tolerance build up and so forth.” Finally, Dr. Lace mentioned that, in general, the claimant exhibited appropriate appearance, behavior, judgment, mood, affect, speech, eye contact, thought process, thought content, and was oriented to time, person, place, and place with his medical providers. (Id. 76.)

         Dr. Lace also opined that the claimant's impairments were not functionally equal to any of the Listings. (Id. 77.) In support of this opinion, Dr. Lace discussed the six functional domains.

[N]umber one, acquiring and using formation information, no limitation. His achievement testing and intelligence appears to be well within normal limits. Number two, attending and completing tasks. There is some evidence to support less than marked limitations in that regard. There is some fidgeting, some inattentiveness and some of that is secondary to the social challenges as well. Number three, interacting and relating with others, firmly into less marked realm. There are noted challenges in this regard with some problems at school and that one visit to the emergency room, as well as other examples at home and at school.
. . . .
Number four, moving and manipulating objects, no limitation. Number five, caring for yourself, no limitation [and] on number six, health and physical well being, no limitation.

(Id. 76-77.)

         On questioning by Plaintiff's counsel, Dr. Lace stated that there is “a bit of a disconnect in the record that hasn't been . . . really addressed” concerning some of the claimant's objective tests and reporting of his in-class behavior. (Id. 81.) For instance, Dr. Lace believed that reports of the claimant's failure to remain on task were not consistent with other evidence in the record. (Id.) Dr. Lace believed that was because reports of the claimant's inability to stay on task were not consistent across the observation sessions. (Id. 81.) Dr. Lace also agreed with counsel that a consultative examination might be helpful “[i]f the Judge is interested in that.” (Id. 82.)

         3. Relevant Medical Evidence

         a. Medical ...

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