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Acevedo v. Astrue

May 17, 2010

DANA ACEVEDO O/B/O A.A., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Abrams United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. PROCEEDINGS

Dana Acevedo ("plaintiff"), on behalf of her minor son A.A.,*fn1 filed this action on April 6, 2009, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of A.A.'s application for Supplemental Security Income payments. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on May 4, 2009, and May 15, 2009. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation on October 13, 2009, that addresses their positions concerning the disputed issues in the case. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

II. BACKGROUND

On November 2, 2006, Dana Acevedo filed an application seeking Supplemental Security Income payments for her minor son, A.A., alleging that he had been disabled since November 1, 2001, due to behavioral, social and educational problems, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD") and Asperger's syndrome. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 92-98, 105-24, 128-35, 139-48.] After the application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 44-49, 52-57.] A hearing was held on July 28, 2008, at which plaintiff and A.A. appeared with counsel and testified. [AR at 21-41.] A medical expert also testified. [AR at 24-27.] On December 17, 2008, the ALJ determined that A.A. was not disabled. [AR at 6-20.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the hearing decision on February 19, 2009, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. [AR at 1-3.] This action followed.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).

In this context, the term "substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance -- it is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion." Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; see also Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the Court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257; Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Court must defer to the decision of the Commissioner. Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1040-1041 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1258.

IV. EVALUATING DISABILITY IN A CHILD

The evaluation of disability for children differs from that for adults. For an individual under eighteen years of age to be disabled for the purpose of receiving benefits, he must suffer from 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). An impairment meets this requirement if it meets or equals in severity any impairment that is listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"). 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d).

A. THE THREE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

The regulations promulgated by the Social Security Administration establish a three-step sequential evaluation process for child disability cases. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. At step one, the relevant inquiry is whether the child is engaged in substantial gainful activity. If so, there is no disability, and the claim is denied. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b). If the child is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the fact finder then determines whether the child has a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that is severe. If the impairment is a "slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that cause no more than a minimal functional limitation," the Commissioner will find that the impairment is not severe and will deny the child's claim. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). If the claimant has a severe impairment, the third and final step assesses whether the impairment meets or medically or functionally equals in severity an impairment in the Listings. If the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, the child will be found disabled, assuming that the twelve-month duration requirement is also met. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d).

A child's impairment "is medically equivalent to a listed impairment... if it is at least equal in severity and duration to the criteria of any listed impairment." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926(a). To establish medical equivalence, "a claimant must establish symptoms, signs and laboratory findings 'at least equal in severity and duration' to the characteristics of a relevant listed impairment." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1099 (9th Cir. 1999) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526).

To determine whether a child's severe impairment functionally equals a listed impairment, the Commissioner assesses all of the functional limitations caused by the child's impairment in 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 self; and (6) health and physical well-being. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a), (b). To functionally equal a listed impairment, a child's impairment must result in "marked" limitations in two domains or an "extreme" limitation in one domain. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a). A "marked" limitation is one that "interferes seriously with [the child's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2). It is "'more than moderate'" but "'less than extreme.'" Id. An ...


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