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Brown v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina.

August 22, 2016

Crystal Weaver Brown, on behalf of K.M.M. 1491, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Kaymani D. West, United States Magistrate Judge.

         This social security matter is before the court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Civil Rule 83.VII.02 (D.S.C.) for final adjudication, with the consent of the parties, of Plaintiff’s petition for judicial review. Plaintiff Crystal Weaver Brown (“Plaintiff”) brings this action on behalf of her minor child, KMM, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). The two issues before the court are whether the Commissioner’s findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence and whether she applied the proper legal standards. Having carefully considered the parties’ submissions and the applicable law, the court affirms the Commissioner’s decision, as discussed herein.

         I. Relevant Background

         A. Procedural History

         In June 2012, Plaintiff applied for SSI on KMM’s behalf alleging a disability onset date of March 5, 2000.[1] Tr. 144-47. In the form disability report, KMM’s disabling conditions were listed as asthma and allergies, acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (“GERD”), scoliosis of the spine, craniostenosis, and spondylolisthesis. Tr. 177. The application was denied initially on August 30, 2012, Tr. 68-69, and upon reconsideration on December 12, 2012, Tr. 81-82, and Plaintiff requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Tr. 93-95. ALJ Thomas G. Henderson conducted a hearing on September 5, 2013. Tr. 44-58. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 20, 2013. Tr. 26-39. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on November 26, 2014, making the ALJ’s decision the final decision for purposes of judicial review. Tr. 1-8. Plaintiff brought this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision in a Complaint filed on January 23, 2015. ECF No. 1.

         B. KMM’s Background

         KMM was born prematurely in March 2000 with a birth weight of 800 grams. Tr. 444. As a low-birth-weight baby he automatically qualified for SSI for a one-year “non-permanent disability.” Tr. 153. KMM had several surgeries throughout his childhood. KMM underwent cranial reconstructive surgery when he was one year old. Tr. 406-07, 519, 521. When he was three years old he had surgery to remove a mass on his vocal cords. Tr. 400-04, 520. KMM underwent surgery for heel cord lengthening when he was nine years old. See Tr. 505, 509. On October 16, 2012, when he was 12 years old, KMM had surgery to decompress his spine. Tr. 518.

         KMM was 12 years old on the date his application for SSI was filed and 13 years old on the date of the administrative hearing. Tr. 47, 144. As of the date of the hearing, KMM was in the eighth grade. Tr. 47.

         C. The Administrative Proceedings

         Plaintiff and KMM, along with their non-attorney representative, appeared in Charleston, South Carolina for an administrative hearing on September 5, 2013. Tr. 44, 51-70.

         1. KMM’s Testimony In response to questions from the ALJ, KMM testified that he was 13 years old and in the eighth grade. Tr. 47. He stated that he spent the past summer relaxing around the house, playing video games, and watching TV. Tr. 47-48. KMM also testified that he played basketball with his friends. Tr. 48. KMM stated that in school he liked math but did not like social studies. Id. KMM testified that he had two brothers, one aged 17 and his 13-year-old twin brother. Tr. 49.

         In response to questions from his representative, KMM testified that although he stated that he played basketball at home, he did not play at school because he had “back problems.” Tr. 49. KMM testified that when he tries to play at school his back starts hurting and he “can’t move as fast as the other kids.” Tr. 50. KMM stated his knees also hurt when he plays. Id. KMM described the pain as feeling “stiff.” Id. KMM testified that he was unable to join the basketball team at school and also unable to join the tennis team because he could not “run as fast.” Tr. 51. KMM testified that he played tennis as a hobby and had started playing the previous year. Id.

         The representative noted that KMM was a twin and his birth weight was less than two pounds. Tr. 52. The representative also noted that KMM was on SSI for the first year, however benefits were automatically discontinued “after the first year, assuming that he would get better. But his health condition continued to get worse.” Id.

         2. Plaintiff’s Testimony

         In response to questions from the representative, Plaintiff testified that KMM’s SSI stopped after one year because “[t]hey said he was no longer disabled.” Tr. 53. She stated there were no medical records that showed he had improvements. Id.

         The ALJ interrupted to confirm that the current SSI application was a “new application” and not a “termination - succession.” Tr. 53. Plaintiff’s representative confirmed it was a new application filed in June 2012. The representative resumed questioning of Plaintiff, and Plaintiff testified that she also filed an application in 2008 or 2009 that was denied because “they said he wasn’t disabled.” Id.

         Plaintiff testified that KMM has asthma and “has to go to the emergency room at least maybe three times a year, especially if the season change or if he’s outside playing in the grass and you just can’t stop it.” Tr. 53. Plaintiff testified that KMM has back problems and due to scoliosis had surgery in October of the previous year to fuse his spine. Tr. 54. Regarding KMM’s legs Plaintiff testified that KMM “has a lot of cramps, like if he tries to get out and run or play basketball he just-they give out and start cramping.” Tr. 55. She stated that KMM “stays in the house a lot.” Id. Plaintiff testified that KMM’s grades were good and confirmed that he had no problems with his teachers, no problems listening, and no problems socially-his problems were physical and not mental. Id.

         In response to the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that KMM’s last asthma episode was in January when he went from the doctor’s office to the emergency room where they were able to stop the asthma attack. Tr. 56. Plaintiff testified that KMM had never been hospitalized for asthma. Id.

         Plaintiff testified that KMM had other prior surgeries including head reconstruction, tissue removed from his larynx, and the “tendons in the back of his legs had to be lengthened because they were tight.” Tr. 56-57. Plaintiff testified that KMM takes Motrin for his back pain. Tr. 57. She also stated that KMM sometimes “wakes up with cramps because maybe he laid the wrong way and it gets stiff or something.” Id.

         Before the ALJ closed the record the representative stated that KMM’s limitations “interfere with his balance and that kind of prevents him from doing things that other children his age would be able to do.” Tr. 57-58. The representative also noted that she was not sure how much more KMM would be able to improve. Tr. 58.

         D. The ALJ’s Findings

         In his September 20, 2013 decision, the ALJ made the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:

1. The claimant was born on March 5, 2000. Therefore, he was an adolescent on June 8, 2012, the date application was filed, and is currently an adolescent (20 CFR 416.926a(g)(2)).
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 8, 2012, the application date (20 CFR 416.924(b) and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: status-post L4-5 fusion and asthma (20 CFR 416.924(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.924, 416.925 and 416.926).
5. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equals the severity of the listings (20 CFR 416.924(d) and 416.926a).
6. The claimant has not been disabled, as defined in the Social Security Act, since June 8, 2012, the date the application ...

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