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Augustine v. Astrue

August 2, 2010

MARCIA AUGUSTINE ON BEHALF OF J.R., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosalyn M. Chapman United States Magistrate Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff J.R., through her mother Marcia Augustine, filed a complaint on June 2, 2009, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability benefits. On October 16, 2009, the Commissioner answered the complaint, and the parties filed a joint stipulation on December 30, 2009.

BACKGROUND

The plaintiff, who was born on July 7, 1997, is now 13 years old. A.R. 51, 55, 164. On May 19, 2004, plaintiff's mother filed an application on plaintiff's behalf for disability benefits under the Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") program of Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a), claiming plaintiff has been disabled since January 1, 2002, due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD") and depression. A.R. 51-54, 71. The Social Security Administration found plaintiff was not disabled, and on August 16, 2006, plaintiff filed a complaint seeking review of that decision, Augustine v. Astrue, EDCV 06-0903-RC ("Augustine I").*fn1 On January 17, 2008, this Court granted plaintiff's request for relief and Judgment was entered remanding Augustine I to the Social Security Administration, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Augustine v. Astrue, 536 F. Supp. 2d 1147 (C.D. Cal. 2008); A.R. 195-205. The Appeals Council, in turn, remanded the matter for further administrative proceedings, A.R. 206-08, and on January 7, 2009, Administrative Law Judge F. Keith Varni ("ALJ") held a new administrative hearing. A.R. 348-64. On March 5, 2009, the ALJ issued a decision again finding plaintiff is not disabled, A.R. 176-88, and that decision is now before this Court for review.

DISCUSSION

I.

The Court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), has the authority to review the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff disability benefits to determine if his findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner used the proper legal standards in reaching his decision. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009); Merrill v. Apfel, 224 F.3d 1083, 1084-85 (9th Cir. 2000).

A minor is "disabled" for purposes of the SSI program if she "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); Merrill, 224 F.3d at 1085. "The claimant bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability." Roberts v. Shalala, 66 F.3d 179, 182 (9th Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 517 U.S. 1122 (1996); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1289 (9th Cir. 1996).

The Commissioner has promulgated regulations establishing a three-step sequential evaluation process to follow when considering the disability application of a minor. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. In the First Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, a finding of non-disability is made and the claim is denied. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b). If the claimant is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, in the Second Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments; if not, a finding of non-disability is made and the claim is denied. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). If the claimant has a severe impairment, in the Third Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or medically or functionally equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments ("Listing"), 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, App. 1, and if the claimant's impairment meets or equals an impairment in the Listing, and meets the durational requirement, disability is presumed and benefits are awarded; otherwise, a finding of non-disability is made and the claim is denied.

20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d).

Applying the three-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity at any relevant time. (Step One). The ALJ then found plaintiff has ADHD and an unspecified depressive disorder, which are severe impairments. (Step Two). Finally, the ALJ concluded plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals a Listing; therefore, plaintiff is not disabled. (Step Three).

II.

The mere diagnosis of a listed impairment is insufficient, in itself, to support a finding of disability; rather, the claimant also must have the findings shown or symptoms detailed in the listing of that impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(d); Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 183 (9th Cir. 1990); Key v. Heckler, 754 F.2d 1545, 1549 (9th Cir. 1985). "To equal a listed impairment, a claimant must establish symptoms, signs and laboratory findings 'at least equal in severity and duration' to the characteristics of a relevant listed impairment, or, if a claimant's impairment is not listed, then to the listed impairment 'most like' the claimant's impairment." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1099 (9th Cir. 1999) (citation omitted); Howard v. Barnhart, 341 F.3d 1006, 1012 (9th Cir. 2003).

Even if an impairment does not meet the requirements of, or is not medically equal to, a listed impairment, the claimant may be disabled if her impairment or combination of impairments is functionally equivalent to a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a; Augustine, 536 F. Supp. 2d at 1151; Smith v. Massanari, 139 F. Supp. 2d 1128, 1135 (C.D. Cal. 2001). Functional equivalence is measured by assessing the claimant's ability to function in terms of the following six domains, which are "broad areas of functioning intended to capture all of what a child can or cannot do": (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 oneself; and (vi) 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 it results "in 'marked' limitations in two domains of functioning or an 'extreme' limitation in one domain[.]"*fn2 20 C.F.R. ยง 416.926a(a), (d). In evaluating a claimant's ability to function in each domain, the ALJ should answer the following questions about whether the claimant's impairments affect her functioning, and whether the claimant's "activities are typical of other children [of the same] age who do not have impairments": (1) What activities can the claimant perform? (2) what activities is the claimant unable to perform? (3) which of the claimant's activities are limited or restricted compared to other children the claimant's age who do not have ...


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