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Alston v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

February 6, 2017

CELESTINA ALSTON, as next friend of A.E.S., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff Celestina Alston brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) on behalf of her minor child, A.E.S., seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of her application for child's supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. Because the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, I will affirm the decision.

         I. Procedural History

         Alston filed her application for child's benefits on April 16, 2013, claiming that A.E.S. became disabled on August 1, 2010. A.E.S. was six years old when Alston applied for benefits. The Social Security Administration denied Alston's application in June 2013. At Alston's request, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on April 16, 2014, at which Alston and A.E.S. testified. On May 13, 2014, the ALJ denied Alston's claim for benefits, finding A.E.S.'s severe impairments of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) not to meet or medically equal a listed impairment, nor functionally equal a listed impairment. On September 15, 2015, upon review of additional evidence, the Appeals Council denied Alston's request for review of the ALJ's decision. The ALJ's decision is thus the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         In this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision, Alston does not claim that the ALJ engaged in any specific error in his determination that A.E.S. is not disabled. Instead, Alston generally argues that A.E.S. should be considered disabled.

         II. Legal Standard

         A claimant under the age of eighteen is considered disabled and eligible for SSI under the Social Security Act if he “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).

         The Commissioner is required to undergo a three-step sequential evaluation process when determining whether a child is entitled to SSI benefits. First, the Commissioner must determine whether the child is engaged in substantial gainful activity. If not, the Commissioner must then determine whether the child's impairment, or combination of impairments, is severe. Finally, if the child's impairment(s) is severe, the Commissioner must determine whether it meets, medically equals, or functionally equals the severity of an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Part 404 of the Regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a); Garrett ex rel. Moore v. Barnhart, 366 F.3d 643, 647 (8th Cir. 2004). If the impairment(s) meets or medically equals a Listing, the child is disabled. Garrett, 366 F.3d at 647. If a child's impairment does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the Commissioner will assess all functional limitations caused by the child's impairment to determine whether the impairment functionally equals the listings. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a. If this analysis shows the child not to have an impairment which is functionally equal in severity to a listed impairment, the ALJ must find the child not disabled. Oberts o/b/o Oberts v. Halter, 134 F.Supp.2d 1074, 1082 (E.D. Mo. 2001).

         To functionally equal a listed impairment, the child's condition must result in an “extreme” limitation in one domain of functioning or “marked” limitations in two domains. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a). The domains are “broad areas of functioning intended to capture all of what a child can or cannot do.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1). The six domains used by the Commissioner in making this determination 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 Oneself; and 6) Health and Physical Well-Being. Id.

         A child-claimant has a “marked” limitation in a domain when his

impairment(s) interferes seriously with [his] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities. [His] day-to-day functioning may be seriously limited when [his] impairment(s) limits only one activity or when the interactive and cumulative effects of [his] impairment(s) limit several activities. “Marked” limitation also means a limitation that is “more than moderate” but “less than extreme.”

20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i). A child has an “extreme” limitation when the impairment “interferes very seriously with [the child's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(3). In determining whether a child-claimant's functioning may be marked or extreme, the Commissioner is to review all the evidence of record and “compare [the child's] functioning to the typical functioning of children [the child's] age who do not have impairments.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(f)(1); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b) (in determining child-claimant's functioning, Commissioner looks “at how appropriately, effectively and independently [the child] perform[s] [his] activities compared to the performance of other children [the child's] age who do not have impairments.”); 20 C.F.R. § 416.924a(b)(5).

         The Commissioner's findings are conclusive upon this Court if they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Young v. Shalala, 52 F.3d 200 (8th Cir. 1995) (citing Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F.3d 1210, 1213 (8th Cir. 1993)). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but enough that a reasonable person would find it adequate to support the conclusion. Briggs v. Callahan, 139 F.3d 606, 608 (8th Cir. 1998). In evaluating the substantiality of the evidence, I must consider evidence which supports the Commissioner's decision as well as any evidence which fairly detracts from the decision. McNamara v. Astrue, 590 F.3d 607, 610 (8th Cir. 2010). Where substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, I must affirm, even if a different conclusion may be drawn from the evidence. Id.

         III. Evidence Before the ALJ

         A. Testimonial Evidence

         At the hearing on April 16, 2014, Alston and A.E.S. testified in response to questions posed by the ALJ. A.E.S. was seven years old and in the second grade at the time of the hearing. He lived with his mother, grandfather, and nine-year-old brother.

         Alston testified that A.E.S. suffers from ADHD and takes Adderall for the condition. The problems began when A.E.S. was three or four years old and started preschool, but he was not diagnosed until April 2013, at which time he began taking medication. Alston testified that when he takes his medication as prescribed, A.E.S. tends to sit quietly, attends to tasks with no problem, focuses more, listens, follows directions, and experiences no disturbances. But when he does not take his medication, he becomes hyper and unable to stay on task. A.E.S. currently sees his physician every three months and gets monthly medication refills. (Tr. 37-40, 44.)

         A.E.S. is in regular classes at school and was recommended for the gifted program. He does not participate in any after-school academic or tutoring programs. His performance and behavior have improved since he began taking medication, and Alston no longer receives calls or complaints from the school. (Tr. 45-46.) A.E.S. has difficulty with one girl in his class who always wants to fight him. (Tr. 55-56.)

         A.E.S. gets up in the morning between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m., although Alston sometimes rouses him at 6:00 a.m. because it may take him a while to get things together before school. A.E.S. then eats and takes his medication. He leaves between 8:00 and 8:10 a.m. to catch the school bus. He gets home from school between 4:00 and 4:10 p.m. at which time he has a snack, does his homework, and then goes outside to play. It takes him about thirty to forty minutes to do his homework, and he does it accurately. A.E.S. plays football and kickball outside nearly every day with his brother and other children until dinner. After dinner, he takes a bath, plays or watches television for about an hour, and then goes to bed. He goes to bed between 9:00 and 9:30 p.m. (Tr. 47-49, 53-54.)

         A.E.S. likes to watch the Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, and Lego movies. He likes to play video games and Legos. He was on a baseball team in Florida before he moved to Missouri. Alston helps him dress and sometimes helps him bathe. A.E.S. can make himself a sandwich or a bowl of cereal and sometimes goes shopping with Alston. He does not have chores ...

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