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Dotson v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

March 29, 2017


          Trauger, Judge


          Joe B. Brown United States Magistrate Judge

         To: The Honorable Aleta A. Trauger, United States District Judge.


         This action was brought under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) for judicial review of the final decision of the Social Security Administration (SSA) through its Commissioner, denying plaintiff's applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq. For the reasons explained below, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that plaintiff's motion for judgment on the administrative record (Doc. 13) be DENIED, and the Commissioner's decision AFFIRMED.


         An application for SSI was filed on November 15, 2010 on plaintiff's behalf, a child under 18 years of age at the time, alleging a disability onset date of October 6, 2010, subsequently amended to May 20, 2009 (Doc. 9, p. 78). Plaintiff alleged disability due to attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder, depression, speech and emotional difficulties. (Doc. 9, pp. 148, 153, 166, 251, 295, 363) The claim was denied initially on May 3, 2011, and upon reconsideration on August 25, 2011. Plaintiff requested a hearing on August 31, 2011, which was held before ALJ Michelle Thompson on August 13, 2012 in Nashville (the first hearing). Plaintiff's mother appeared and testified at the first hearing without benefit of counsel.

         The ALJ entered an unfavorable decision on August 17, 2012 (Doc. 9, pp. 120-39) (the first decision), after which plaintiff filed a request with the Appeals Council on November 16, 2012 to review ALJ Thompson's decision (Doc. 9, pp. 90-92). The Appeals Council vacated the hearing decision, and remanded the case to ALJ Thompson with instructions to: 1) evaluate and weigh the medical opinions of Dorothy Lambert, Ph.D., Ken Owen, M.S., and to consider plaintiff's low Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) scores and other related evidence; 2) evaluate evidence of verbal aggression and noncompliance; 3) consider the opinions of treating and nontreating source opinions and explain the weight given to those opinions; 4) update the evidentiary record with any existing medical and education records. (Doc. 9, p. 140-42)

         ALJ Thompson held a second hearing on August 22, 2014, also in Nashville. Plaintiff was represented by attorney William Benjamin at the hearing. Plaintiff's mother once again appeared and testified. ALJ Thompson entered an unfavorable decision on November 14, 2014. (Doc. 9, pp. 17-45) Thereafter, counsel filed a request for the Appeals Council to review ALJ Thompson's second unfavorable decision on November 24, 2014 (Doc. 9, p. 15), and a supporting brief on January 16, 2015. (Doc. 9, pp. 539-41) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on March 31, 2016. (Doc. 9, pp. 1-6)

         Plaintiff brought this action through counsel on May 26, 2016 (Doc. 1), following which she filed a motion for judgment on the administrative record on October 17, 2016 (Doc. 13).[2] The Commissioner responded in opposition on November 16, 2016 Doc. 16), and plaintiff replied on November 28, 2016 (Doc. 19). This matter is now properly before the court.

         II. EVIDENCE

         The medical and other evidence in the record, as well as the transcript of both hearings, are incorporated herein by reference. The evidence and hearing testimony will be addressed in the analysis below to the extent that it is relevant to the issues.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The ALJ's Notice of Decision

         A child under the age of eighteen seeking SSI benefits will be considered disabled if she has a “medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i). Childhood disability claims involve a three-step process evaluating whether the child claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. First, the ALJ must determine whether the child claimant is working. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b); Elam v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 348 F.3d 124, 125 (6th Cir. 2003). If not, at step two, the ALJ must decide whether the child claimant has a severe mental or physical impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c); Elam, 348 F.3d at 125. Third, the ALJ must consider whether the claimant's impairment(s) meets or equals a listing under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d); Elam, 348 F.3d at 125. The burden of proof lies with the plaintiff to prove that she is disabled. Lowery v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 55 Fed.Appx. 333, 337-38 (6th Cir. 2003); Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 354 (6th Cir. 2001)(citing Casey v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 1232-33 (6th Cir. 1993)).

         B. Standard of Review

         The district court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record, and whether the decision was made pursuant to proper legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Gayheart v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 710 F.3d 365, 374 (6th Cir. 2014). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but more than a scintilla; it refers to relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see Gentry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 741 F.3d 708, 722 (6th Cir. 2003). The Commissioner's decision must stand if substantial evidence supports the conclusion reached, even if the evidence supports a different conclusion. Gayheart, 710 F.3d at 374.

         C. Claims of Error1. Whether the ALJ Erred in Not According ProperWeight to the Opinion of PsychiatristDr. Lynna ...

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