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Long v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 30, 2019

MELANIE LONG for I. P. L., a minor child, Petitioner,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,[1] Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          Honorable Ronald E. Bush, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         Pending is Petitioner Melanie Long's Petition for Review (Dkt. 1), appealing the Social Security Administration's final decision finding her minor child I.P.L.[2] not disabled and denying the child's claim for supplemental security income benefits. See Pet. for Review (Dkt. 1). This action is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Having carefully considered the record and otherwise being fully advised, the Court enters the following Memorandum Decision and Order.

         I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         On September 5, 2014, an application for supplemental security income was protectively filed on behalf of the Claimant, I.P.L.[3] (AR 15.) The application alleged disability beginning July 20, 2009. (Id.) The claim was denied initially on November 13, 2014 and then again on reconsideration on February 18, 2015. (Id.) On May 6, 2015, a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) was timely filed. (Id.) Petitioner and Claimant both appeared and testified at a hearing held on March 1, 2017 before ALJ Stephen Marchioro in Boise, Idaho. (Id.) Impartial medical expert Dr. Robert E. Pelc also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.)

         On June 28, 2017, the ALJ issued a Decision denying Claimant's claim, finding that Claimant was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (AR 33.) Review was timely requested from the Appeals Council on Claimant's behalf on or about August 25, 2017. (AR 184.) On May 23, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's Request for Review, making the ALJ decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (AR 1.)

         Claimant's administrative remedies having been exhausted, Petitioner timely filed the instant action on Claimant's behalf, arguing that “[t]he decision denying Petitioner's claim is not in accordance with the purpose and intent of the Social Security Act, nor is it in accordance with the law, nor is it in accordance with the evidence, but contrary thereto and to the facts and against the evidence, in that Petitioner [4] is disabled from performing substantial gainful activity.” Pet. for Review 2 (Dkt. 1). Petitioner contends the ALJ erred by relying on the opinion of a non-examining psychologist over Claimant's treating provider, by ignoring evidence of a significant chromosome abnormality while analyzing the functional domains, and by rejecting Petitioner's testimony without providing clear and convincing reasons. See generally Pet'r's Mem. ISO Pet. for Review (Dkt. 14). Petitioner asks for reversal and an order remanding for an immediate award of benefits. Id. at 20.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         To be upheld, the Commissioner's decision must be supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664 (9th Cir. 2017). Findings as to any question of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In other words, if there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual decisions, they must be upheld, even when there is conflicting evidence. See Treichler v. Comm'r of Social Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014).

         “Substantial evidence” is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1051 (9th Cir. 2012). The standard requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance (Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 674), and “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988).

         With respect to questions of fact, the role of the Court is to review the record as a whole to determine whether it contains evidence that would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions of the ALJ. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; see also Ludwig, 681 F.3d at 1051. The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1098. Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the reviewing court must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Ludwig, 681 F.3d at 1051. In such cases, the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment or interpretation of the record for that of the ALJ. Batson v. Comm'r of Social Sec., 359 F.3d 1190, 1196 (9th Cir. 2004).

         With respect to questions of law, the ALJ's decision must be based on proper legal standards and will be reversed for legal error. Zavalin v. Colvin, 778 F.3d 842, 845 (9th Cir. 2015); Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1098. Considerable weight must be given to the ALJ's construction of the Social Security Act. See Vernoff v. Astrue, 568 F.3d 1102, 1105 (9th Cir. 2009). However, reviewing federal courts “will not rubber-stamp an administrative decision that is inconsistent with the statutory mandate or that frustrates the congressional purpose underlying the statute.” Smith v. Heckler, 820 F.2d 1093, 1094 (9th Cir. 1987).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Sequential Process

         In evaluating the evidence presented at an administrative hearing, the ALJ must follow a sequential process in determining whether a person is disabled in general (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920) - or continues to be disabled (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594, 416.994) - within the meaning of the Social Security Act. For individuals under the age of 18, this is a three-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a).

         The first step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). SGA is work activity that is both substantial and gainful. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572, 416.972. “Substantial work activity” is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(a), 416.972(a). “Gainful work activity” is work that is usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(b), 416.972(b). If the claimant is engaged in SGA, disability benefits are denied regardless of his medical condition, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If the claimant is not engaged in SGA, the analysis proceeds to the second step. Here, the ALJ found that Claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from the application date of September 5, 2014 through the date of the ALJ's decision. (AR 18.)

         The second step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment, or combination of impairments, that is severe and meets the duration requirement. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). For claimants under the age of 18, an impairment or combination of impairments is not “severe” within the meaning of the Social Security Act if it “is a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that causes no more than minimal functional limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). If a claimant does not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, disability benefits are denied. Id. Here, the ALJ found that Claimant has the following severe impairments: “communication (language and speech) disorder and unspecified neurocognitive disorder (central auditory processing disorder).” (AR 18.)

         The third step requires the ALJ to determine the medical severity of any impairments; that is, whether the claimant's impairments meet, medically equal, or functionally equal a listed impairment under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d). If the answer is yes, the claimant is considered disabled under the Social Security Act and benefits are awarded. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d)(1). If a minor claimant's impairments neither meet nor equal a listed impairment, the claimant is deemed not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d)(2). To determine whether an impairment or combination of impairments functionally equals a listing, the ALJ must assess the claimant's functioning in terms of six separate domains: (i) Acquiring and using information; (ii) Attending and completing tasks; (iii) Interacting and relating with others; (iv) Moving about and manipulating objects; (v) Caring for yourself; and (vi) Health and physical well-being. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a. Marked limitation in two domains or extreme limitation in one domain mandates a finding that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a).

         Here, after a lengthy discussion, the ALJ found that Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met, medically equaled, or functionally equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (AR 19-33.) Based on that finding, the ALJ ultimately concluded that Claimant “has not been disabled, as defined in the Social Security Act, since September 5, 2014, the date the application was filed.” (AR 33.)

         B. Analysis

         Petitioner raises three primary issues with the ALJ's decision. First, she argues the ALJ erred by relying on the opinion of a non-examining psychologist over Claimant's treating provider. Second, she argues the ALJ erred in his analysis of the functional domains by ignoring evidence of a significant chromosome abnormality. Third, she argues the ALJ erred by rejecting Petitioner's testimony without providing clear and convincing reasons. See generally Pet'r's Mem. ISO Pet. for Review (Dkt. 14). Each assignment of error will be addressed in turn.

         1. The ALJ Did Not Err in Weighing Psychological Opinions of Record.

         Petitioner contends the ALJ erred by relying on the opinion of a non-examining psychologist over Claimant's treating provider. Id. at 8-12. She argues that the impartial medical expert Dr. Pelc, who did not examine Claimant, ignored significant medical records and his opinion was therefore necessarily incomplete or inaccurate. Accordingly, Petitioner argues, it was error for the ALJ to rely on Dr. Pelc's opinion. She specifically argues that Dr. Pelc is not a specialist in the fields of child psychology, pediatrics, or genetics and that his failure to mention Claimant's diagnosis of Klinefelter syndrome drastically reduces the probative value of his opinion. She does not identify specific components of Dr. Pelc's opinion with which she disagrees; her argument is that the opinion is not entitled to the weight the ALJ gave it because it ignores relevant medical evidence.

         Petitioner contrasts Dr. Pelc's opinion with the opinions of various treating clinicians who opined that Claimant was significantly limited as compared to his peers. Most significantly, she notes that certified physician assistant Julie Scott, who is Claimant's primary care provider and whose opinion the ALJ rejected, opined that Claimant suffers from “significant difficulty with impulse control, listening, following directions that he doesn't want to follow, and is constantly in motion.” (AR 710-711.) Her opinion, which she ...


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