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Hitchcock v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 25, 2019

JUDITH LYNN HITCHCOCK, on behalf of M.L.H., a minor child, Petitioner,


          Honorable Candy W. Dale, United States Magistrate Judge


         Petitioner Judith Hitchcock filed a petition for review on behalf of her minor daughter on February 20, 2018, seeking a reversal or remand of the Respondent’s denial of social security benefits. (Dkt. 1.) The Court has reviewed the Petition for Review and the Answer, the parties’ memoranda, and the administrative record (AR), and for the reasons that follow, will affirm the decision of the Commissioner.


         Petitioner filed an application for child’s supplemental security income benefits on July 14, 2014. This application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and a hearing was conducted on September 28, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Marie Palachuck. After considering testimony from Petitioner’s mother, a medical expert, and Petitioner, [2] ALJ Palachuck issued a decision on November 15, 2016, finding Petitioner not disabled. Petitioner timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on December 19, 2017.

         Petitioner timely appealed this final decision to the Court. The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ’s decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         At the time of the hearing on September 28, 2016, Petitioner was fifteen years of age and had begun her first year of high school. Petitioner had no past relevant work experience. Petitioner alleges disability due to the following impairments, which the ALJ found to be severe: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; high functioning autism spectrum disorder versus pervasive developmental disorder; and depressive disorder. (AR 23.)


         On review, the Court is instructed to uphold the decision of the Commissioner if the decision is supported by substantial evidence and is not the product of legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015); Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). “Substantial evidence” means “more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005). “It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court is required to review the record as a whole and to consider evidence detracting from the decision as well as evidence supporting the decision. Robbins v. Social Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006); Verduzco v. Apfel, 188 F.3d 1087, 1089 (9th Cir. 1999). “Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ’s decision, the ALJ’s conclusion must be upheld. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Morgan v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999)). It is well-settled that, if there is substantial evidence to support the decision of the Commissioner, the decision must be upheld even when the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the Commissioner’s decision, because the Court “may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Verduzco v. Apfel, 188 F.3d 1087, 1089 (9th Cir. 1999).


         A child under the age of eighteen is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act “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.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i) (as amended); see 20 C.F.R. § 416.906; see Merrill ex rel. Merrill v. Apfel, 224 F.3d 1083, 1085 (9th Cir. 2000) (citing § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i)). The three-step evaluation process applicable to child disability applications requires the ALJ to determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that is severe; and (3) whether the claimant’s impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the requirements of a listed impairment, or functionally equals the listings. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b)-(d). “[I]f the child’s impairment or impairments do not meet, medically equal, or functionally equal in severity a listed impairment, the child is not disabled.” Brown v. Callahan, 120 F.3d 1133, 1135 (10th Cir. 1997) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.928 (a)); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.902, 416.906, 416.924-416.926a (regulations concerning childhood disability standards).

         To meet a listed impairment, a claimant must show that her impairment “meet[s] all of the specified medical criteria. An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990); see Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1099 (9th Cir. 1999). To medically “equal” a listed impairment, a claimant must present medical findings at least equal in severity and duration to all of the criteria for the most similar listed impairment. See Sullivan, 493 U.S. at 531; Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099-1100; 20 C.F.R. § 416.926 (discussing medical equivalence for adults and children).

         If a child disability claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any listing, the ALJ must consider whether it “functionally equals” a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924(a), 416.926a. “Functional equivalence” is determined not by reference to the criteria for any particular listed impairment, but by reviewing all relevant information in the case record, including information from a broad range of medical sources and nonmedical sources, to assess the child’s functioning in six areas, which are referred to as domains. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a. The six domains are: (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. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1)(i)-(vi). An impairment or combination of impairments functionally equals a listing if, applying criteria detailed in the Commissioner’s regulations, it results in “marked” limitations in two domains or an “extreme” limitation in one domain. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a), (e)(1).

         The ALJ found that Petitioner did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equaled the severity of a listed impairment.[3] Although numerous objective tests documented Petitioner’s poor processing speed, the ALJ determined Petitioner had less than a marked limitation in acquiring and using information, and in attending and completing tasks. In making these two determinations, the ALJ considered cognitive testing; her grades in school; Petitioner’s school ...

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