Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Mattox v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

March 26, 2019

LILLIE MATTOX. O/B/O X.T., a minor child, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Senior United States District Judge

         Lillie Mattox, the grandmother and legal guardian of X.T., filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security terminating the payment of child's supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383(d).[1] Jurisdiction of this court is established pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), which incorporates 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         By order entered December 14, 2017, the court referred this case to a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). On November 20, 2018, the magistrate judge submitted a report in which he recommends that the court affirm the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff has filed an objection to the magistrate judge's report, and the matter is now ripe for the court's consideration.

         This court is charged with performing a de novo review of the magistrate judge's report and recommendation. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). In the instant case, the court's review is limited to a determination as to whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's conclusion that the plaintiff has not met the requirements for entitlement to benefits under the Act since December 3, 2014. If such substantial evidence exists, the final decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed. Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966). Stated briefly, substantial evidence has been defined as such relevant evidence, considering the record as a whole, as might be found adequate to support a conclusion by a reasonable mind. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         The plaintiff was born in August of 2006 with a congenital right foot deformity, a right tibial deficiency, and an unstable right knee. (Tr. 341, 358). He underwent a "right through knee amputation" at Shriners Hospital for Children in Greenville, South Carolina on July 12, 2007. (Tr. 345). On February 5, 2008, the plaintiffs mother filed an application for child's supplemental security income benefits. On August 22, 2008, the plaintiff was found to be disabled as of February 5, 2008, based on the determination that the plaintiffs partial leg amputation medically equaled Listing 101.05(B), since the plaintiff required assistance with walking and was unable to perform age-appropriate activities. (Tr. 84-101, 363).

         In 2014, the Social Security Administration performed a continuing disability review and determined that the plaintiff was no longer disabled, since he was "able to use his prosthesis without great difficulty" and could "participate in most age-appropriate activities." (Tr. 80). On December 3, 2014, the Social Security Administration notified the plaintiff that his child's SSI benefits would end in February of 2015, based on the agency's determination that the plaintiff was no longer disabled as of December 2014. (Tr. 102-03). The plaintiff sought reconsideration of the termination decision. On September 8, 2015, the agency notified the plaintiff that it was adhering to its determination that the plaintiff was no longer eligible for child's SSI benefits. (Tr. 143).

         The plaintiff then requested and received a de novo hearing and review before an Administrative Law Judge. In an opinion dated June 9, 2016, the Law Judge also determined that the plaintiffs disability ended as of December 3, 2014, and that the plaintiff has not become disabled again since that date. (Tr. 43). The Law Judge found that the plaintiff has suffered from several severe impairments since December 3, 2014, including right leg amputation, eczema, allergic rhinitis, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"). However, the Law Judge determined that the plaintiffs previously disabling impairment has improved, and that none of the plaintiffs conditions, either individually or in combination, has met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment since December 3, 2014. (Tr. 19, 26). The Law Judge also considered each of the six functional domains for the period since December 3, 2014, and concluded that the plaintiff has experienced "less than marked" limitations in each domain. (Tr. 38-42). Thus, the Law Judge found that the plaintiff has not had an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equals a listed impairment since December 3, 2014. (Tr. 27). Accordingly, the Law Judge concluded that the plaintiff was no longer disabled as of that date. (Tr. 43). The Law Judge's opinion was adopted as the final decision of the Commissioner by the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. Having exhausted all available administrative remedies, the plaintiff has now appealed to this court.

         A child is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act if he has a "physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and ... which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i)., Under the applicable regulations, the determination of whether a child meets this definition is determined via a three-step inquiry. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. The first determination is whether the child is working and performing substantial gainful activity. Id. § 416.924(b). If the child is not working, it must then be decided whether the child suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments. IcL § 416.924(c). If the child suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments, it must then be determined whether the child's impairment(s) meet, medically equal, or functionally equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. § 416.924(d).

         To determine whether an impairment is functionally equivalent to a listed impairment, the Law Judge evaluates its severity 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 oneself; and (6) health and physical well-being. Icl § 416.926a(b)(1). Functional equivalence exists if the Law Judge finds a "marked" limitation in two areas of functioning or an "extreme" limitation in one area of functioning. Id. § 416.926a(d). A "marked" limitation is one that "interferes seriously with [the claimant's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities." Id. § 416.924a(e)(2)(i). A "marked" limitation "also means a limitation that is 'more than moderate' but 'less than extreme.'" Id. As previously noted, the court referred the case to a magistrate judge for a report setting forth findings of fact, conclusions of law, and a recommended disposition. In his report, the magistrate judge recommended that the court affirm the final decision of the Commissioner terminating the payment of child's SSI benefits to the plaintiff. Succinctly stated, the magistrate judge determined that substantial evidence supports the Law Judge's finding that the plaintiffs right leg amputation has not met or medically equaled Listing 101.05(B) since December 3, 2014. The magistrate judge likewise determined that substantial evidence supports the Law Judge's finding that the plaintiff has had "less than marked" limitations in all six areas of functioning since December 3, 2014, and thus has not had an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equals a listed impairment since that date.

         In the objections to the report and recommendation, plaintiff takes issue with the magistrate judge's findings as to four of the issues raised in the plaintiffs motion for summary judgment. The first issue is whether the Law Judge erred in finding that the plaintiffs right leg impairment has not met or medically equaled Listing 101.05(b) since December 3, 2014. A claimant meets or medically equals this Listing with the amputation of "[o]ne or both lower extremities at or above the tarsal region, with stump complications resulting in medical inability to . use a prosthetic device to ambulate effectively, ... which have lasted or are expected to last for at least 12 months." 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, App'x 1, 101.05. The inability to "ambulate effectively" is defined as "an extreme limitation of the ability to walk." Id. at 101.00(B)(2)(b). "Older children, who would be expected to be able to walk when compared to other children the same age who do not have impairments, must be capable of sustaining a reasonable walking pace over a sufficient distance to be able to carry out age-appropriate activities," and they "must have the ability to travel age-appropriately without extraordinary assistance to and from school." Id.

         The Law Judge found that since December 3, 2014, the plaintiff has not experienced stump complications resulting in "12 months (actual or expected) of inability to ambulate effectively." (Tr. 20, 26). The court agrees with the magistrate judge that the Law Judge's finding is supported by substantial evidence. In June of 2014, the plaintiffs second grade teacher noted that the plaintiff "moves better than most of the other kids" and that he "runs and jumps" with "lots of energy." (Tr. 286). The plaintiffs grandmother subsequently reported that the plaintiff enjoys, skateboarding and playing soccer and basketball. (Tr. 655-56). On March 27, 2015, a state agency physician found that "there has been significant medical improvement" and that the plaintiffs right leg amputation does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. (Tr. 411, 416). During an October 12, 2015 examination at Shriners Hospital, the plaintiff showed "good range of motion through the hip" and was found to be "doing well" overall, even though he had been wearing his "smaller broken prosthesis."[2] (Tr. 536). Although the plaintiff was prescribed a wheeled walker approximately two months before the administrative hearing due to a "skin irritation" (591), the Law Judge reasonably concluded that "the record does not establish an inability to ambulate effectively that has lasted or is expected to last for at least 12 months." (Tr. 19).

         In arguing to the contrary, the plaintiff emphasizes that he has been treated for eczema since 2014, and that his skin problems therefore "did not suddenly arise shortly before the ALJ hearing." PI.'s Objections 2, Dkt. No. 22. While this may be true, the record amply supports the Law Judge's determination that the plaintiffs complications from eczema did not prohibit him from ambulating effectively during most of the relevant time period. Indeed, when the plaintiff first presented for an evaluation of his eczema on September 10, 2014, he exhibited "normal range of motion" and primarily complained of dry, itchy skin on his "arms and neck." (Tr. 423). Three months later, the eczema was found to be "well controlled" and "much improved on his skin care plan." (Tr. 433, 435). The same was true in March of 2015, when the plaintiffs skin was found to be "normal," with "no rashes or lesions." (Tr. 453). Likewise, in August of 2015, the allergist noted that the plaintiffs "eczema has been under good control" and that "his skin is much improved." (Tr. 570-73). Although the plaintiff complained of increased itching in December of 2015, less than three months before the administrative hearing, the plaintiff nonetheless exhibited normal range of motion. (Tr. 579-81). Because the itching primarily affected the plaintiffs ability to "sleep," the allergist recommended that the plaintiff apply Vaseline gauze to his stump "at bedtime." (Tr. 579, 582). In sum, the court is convinced that substantial evidence supports the Law Judge's conclusion that the record fails to establish an inability to ambulate effectively for a period of at least 12 months. Accordingly, the plaintiffs objection as to the right leg issue is overruled.

         In his second objection, the plaintiff argues that the magistrate judge erred in concluding that substantial evidence supports the Law Judge's determination that the plaintiff has experienced a "less than marked" limitation in the area of attending and completing tasks since December 3, 2014. In this functional domain, the Law Judge considers how well the claimant is able to focus and maintain his attention, and how well he begins, carries through, and finishes his activities, including the pace at which he performs his activities and the ease with which he changes them. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(h). The regulations provide that school-age children should be able to follow directions, remember and organize their school materials, and complete assignments. Id. § 416.926a(h)(2)(iv). They should also be able to concentrate on details, stay on task, and sustain their attention well enough to read by themselves, participate in group sports, and complete chores. Id. The court agrees with the magistrate judge that the Law Judge's assessment of this area of functioning is supported by substantial evidence. In June of 2014, the plaintiffs second grade teacher rated the plaintiff as having either no problems or only slight problems in the domain of attending and completing tasks, and noted that the plaintiff "takes medication that helps him focus." (Tr. 284). During a subsequent psychological evaluation, the plaintiffs grandmother reported that the plaintiffs prescription for Adderall proved "very helpful in improving his attention, decreasing hyperactivity and impulsivity," and that, when taking such medication, the plaintiffs ADHD symptoms were "mild in the classroom." (Tr. 658). The plaintiffs grandmother also reported that the plaintiff was doing well in third grade, that he was capable of independently performing chores, and that he could sustain concentration long enough to watch a movie and read a five-minute book. (Tr. 657-58). Similarly, during the administrative hearing, the plaintiff testified that he was doing well in fourth grade, that his favorite subject was reading, and that he did not have any problems reading his favorite book series. (Tr. 55). The Law Judge's assessment of the plaintiffs ability to attend and complete tasks is also supported by the findings of the state agency consultants, both of whom opined in March of 2015 that the plaintiff has a "less than marked" limitation in this area of functioning. (Tr. 374, 413).

         In the pending objection, the plaintiff argues that "he has experienced significant issues with eczema affecting his prosthesis since September of 2014," and that the Law Judge "ignored evidence from plaintiffs fourth grade teacher, Ms. Hoyt, that plaintiffs itching and pain from his eczema and prosthesis frequently interferes with his ability to attend and complete tasks." PL's Objection 3. Upon review of the record, however, the court is constrained to conclude that this objection is without merit. As the Law Judge noted in his decision, "the treatment history discussed above shows that these physical symptoms are intermittent and variable," and that they generally improved under the skin care plan prescribed by the allergist. (Tr. 39). Although Ms. Hoyt reported that the plaintiff would "often" ask to visit the school nurse or the restroom to scratch his leg (Tr. 295), the Law Judge did not ignore the teacher's letter. Instead, the Law Judge's decision confirms that he reviewed the contents of the letter and determined that it was not entitled to considerable weight since it was "vague as to the frequency of the claimant's prosthetic-related interruptions." (Tr. 28, 35). The Law Judge also emphasized that "[a] review of the notes kept by the school nurse suggests that the actual frequency [of nurse visits] was rather low." (Tr. 35-36). Indeed, the notes reflect that the plaintiff visited the nurse approximately four times between January 2015 and February 2016 for complaints related to itching or his prosthesis, and ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.