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Johnson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Waycross Division

March 5, 2018

LATISHA JOHNSON, on behalf of her minor child K.J.J., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.



         Plaintiff contests the decision of Administrative Law Judge Craig R. Petersen (“the ALJ” or “ALJ Petersen”) denying her son's claim for Supplemental Security Income benefits. Plaintiff urges the Court to reverse the ALJ's decision and award benefits, or, in the alternative, to remand the case to the ALJ for a proper determination of the evidence. Defendant asserts the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed. For the reasons which follow, I RECOMMEND the Court AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision. I also RECOMMEND that the Court DIRECT the Clerk of Court to CLOSE this case and enter the appropriate judgment of dismissal.


         Plaintiff filed an application for a Supplemental Security Income benefits on behalf of her son on September 4, 2013, alleging that he became disabled on July 15, 2011, due to asthma. (Doc. 9-2, p. 40.) After the claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. On September 18, 2014, ALJ Petersen conducted a video hearing while presiding in Savannah, Georgia, with Plaintiff appearing in Waycross, Georgia. (Id.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, and the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner for judicial review. (Doc. 9-2, p. 3.)

         Plaintiff, born on June 15, 2011, was four (4) years old when ALJ Petersen issued his final decision. (Id. at p. 58; Doc. 16, p. 2.)


         I. The ALJ's Findings

         The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, Pub. L. No. 104-193, § 211, 110 Stat. 2105 (“Reconciliation Act”) amended 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3) and altered both the statutory definition of childhood disability and the framework for determining such a disability. The Reconciliation Act applies to children who filed disability claims on or after August 22, 1996, as well as to applicants whose cases were not finally adjudicated by that date. 110 Stat. 2105, § 211(d)(1)(A)(ii). Under this Act, a child's impairment or combination of impairments must cause more serious impairment-related limitations than the prior regulations required. 62 Fed. Reg. 6408, 6409 (Feb. 11, 1997).

         Under the Reconciliation Act, a child under the age of eighteen is considered disabled if “that individual has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and which can be expected to . . . last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i). The regulations implementing the new standards provide the following three-step sequential process that must be followed by the ALJ in determining whether a child is entitled to benefits: (1) Is the child engaged in substantial gainful activity? If yes, the child is not disabled. If no, then: (2) Does the child have a severe impairment? If no, then the child is not disabled. If yes, then: (3) Does the impairment medically meet or functionally meet a listed impairment in Appendix 1? If yes, the child is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924(a)-(d); see also Wilson v. Apfel, 179 F.3d 1276, 1278 n.1 (11th Cir. 1999). In reaching this determination, the ALJ considers information from medical sources and non-medical sources, as well as the child's age. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924a(a) & 416.924b.

         If a child's impairment does not medically meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine whether the child “‘functionally equal[s] the listings, '” i.e., the child's “impairment(s) must result in a listing-level severity-‘marked' limitations in two domains of functioning or an ‘extreme' limitation in one domain.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a). If a child has “marked” limitations in two domains or an “extreme” limitation in one domain, the child's impairment is functionally equivalent to a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(d). A “marked” limitation is one that “interferes seriously” with a claimant's abilities in a domain, and an “extreme” limitation is one that “interferes very seriously.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.926a(e)(2) & (3). The domains an ALJ uses are: (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(b)(1).

         ALJ Petersen classified Plaintiff's son as an “older infant” as of the date his application was filed and noted he was a preschooler on the date of the ALJ's decision. The ALJ found Plaintiff's son had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date and had asthma as a severe impairment. (Doc. 9-2, p. 43.) However, ALJ Petersen determined K.J.J.'s asthma did not meet or medically equal the requisite severity of a listed impairment, nor did his asthma functionally equal the requisite severity of a listed impairment. (Id. at p. 50.)

         II. Issues Presented

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by improperly discounting the opinions of K.J.J.'s treating pulmonologist and of other doctors to find K.J.J. did not meet or equal Listings 103.03B and/or 103.03C or functionally equal either of these Listings. (Doc. 15, p. 3.)

         III. Standard of Review

         It is well-established that judicial review of social security cases is limited to questions of whether the Commissioner's factual findings are supported by “substantial evidence, ” and whether the Commissioner has applied appropriate legal standards. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991); Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). A reviewing court does not “decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence or substitute” its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's factual findings, the court must affirm a decision supported by substantial evidence. Id.

         However, substantial evidence must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be proved. The evidence relied upon must be relevant evidence which a reasonable mind would find adequate to support a conclusion. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007). The substantial evidence standard requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance of evidence. Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210. In its review, the court must also determine whether the ALJ or Commissioner applied appropriate legal standards. Failure to delineate and apply the appropriate standards mandates that the findings be vacated and remanded for clarification. Cornelius, 936 F.2d at 1146.

         The deference accorded the Commissioner's findings of fact does not extend to her conclusions of law, which enjoy no presumption of validity. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991) (holding that judicial review of the Commissioner's legal conclusions are not subject to the substantial evidence standard). If the Commissioner fails either to apply correct legal standards or to provide the reviewing court with the means to determine whether correct legal standards were in fact applied, the court must reverse the decision. Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 ...

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