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Walker v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio

August 22, 2019

APRIL WALKER, on behalf of minor C.C. Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER [RESOLVING DOCS. 14, 15]

          JAMES S. GWIN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In June 2014, Plaintiff April Walker applied for Social Security disability benefits on behalf of her minor son C.C. In support of the application, Walker claiming her son suffers from intellectual and neurological challenges.[1]

         The Social Security Administration denied this application initially and upon reconsideration.[2] After two hearings, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) determined that C.C. was not disabled.[3] The Social Security Appeals Council declined review, [4] making the ALJ's decision the final agency action.

         Magistrate Judge Parker issued a report and recommendation (“R&R”) recommending that the Court affirm the ALJ's decision.[5] Plaintiff Walker objects.[6] Because Plaintiff objected to Judge Parker's R&R, the Court reviews it de novo.[7]

         For the following reasons, the Court SUSTAINS Plaintiff's objections, REJECTS the R&R, VACATES the ALJ's decision, and REMANDS this case to the ALJ.

         Discussion

         The Court's review of the ALJ's decision is limited to whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence and applied the correct legal standards.[8] A decision is supported by substantial evidence if, considering the entire record, “a reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support a conclusion.”[9]

         In determining whether a child is disabled, an ALJ employs a three-step analysis considering: (i) whether the child was involved in substantial gainful activity, (ii) whether the child had severe impairments, and (iii) whether those impairments met or functionally equaled a listed impairment.[10]

         The parties only dispute the third step. Specifically, Plaintiff Walker challenges the ALJ's determination that C.C. did not meet “Listing § 112.05B” and did not functionally meet a listed impairment. The Court considers both in turn.

         A. Listing § 112.05B

         The Social Security Administration's regulations identify intellectual disorders that qualify as an impairment in Listing § 112.05B.[11] Under § 112.05B, Plaintiff Walker had to show that C.C. had significant subaverage general intellectual functioning: meaning an IQ score of at most 70, or an IQ score of at most 75 with a verbal or performance IQ score of at most 70.[12] She also had to show significant deficits in adaptive functioning: meaning extreme limitations in one, or marked limitations in two, of the following domains:

1. Understanding, remembering, and applying information.
2. Interacting with others.
3. Concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace.
4. Adapting or managing oneself.[13]

         The ALJ determined that, even assuming C.C.'s intellectual functioning was significantly subaverage, C.C.'s limitations in these domains were less than marked.[14] Plaintiff Walker argues that the ALJ erred in his analysis of the first and third domains.[15]

         The ALJ decision faces the problem that the ALJ inexplicably combined his analysis of the first and third factors, making it impossible to understand his explanation.[16] The regulations presumably keep these factors separate for a reason, and the ALJ's combined discussion does little to promote clarity.

         Further muddying the waters, the ALJ conflates three years of medical records. For example, the ALJ relies on a 2017 examination to determine that C.C. was not disabled in 2014.[17] Bluntly, the ALJ makes little effort in tying the evidence to the relevant timespan.

         Also, some of ALJ's relied upon evidence has no apparent bearing on the first and third domains. For example, the ALJ states that “[t]he claimant plays video games, and uses computers and tablets.”[18] The ALJ further argues that C.C. enjoys fishing, hunting, and playing outside.[19] He even points to the fact that “[t]he claimant attends school”-which is legally required and says nothing about his performance.[20]

         Worst of all, some of the ALJ's conclusions are simply inaccurate. The ALJ states that C.C. attends school with typically developing peers.[21] In fact, C.C. has been enrolled in special education program since 2014. And in the 2017 academic year alone, C.C. received dozens of hours of direct intensive instruction in reading, math, writing, and functional academics.[22] The ALJ's statement suggests that C.C. was receiving an unexceptional education. When, in fact, the school district had determined that C.C. would benefit from extended time to complete tasks, simplified instructions, reduced reading levels, and seating near a teacher.

         Additionally, the ALJ determined that “there [was] no evidence of learning barriers [or] repeated grades.”[23] Again, untrue. As of 2014, C.C. was unable to receive special education services with nondisabled peers because he requires “a small group in order to provide direct, intensive instruction.”[24] Further, in 2014, it seems the local school district determined that C.C. met the state's criteria for being disabled due to developmental delay.[25]

         Similarly, a May 2016 evaluation revealed that his reading, alphabet, and math skills were “within the Very Low to Below Average” range.[26] The same evaluation indicated that his community use skills were extremely low, and his communication, functional academics, school living, leisure, and self-direction skills were below ...


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