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Hynes ex rel Davis v. Astrue

May 12, 2009

RITA HYNES EX REL. KEA M. DAVIS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Rita Hynes brought this civil lawsuit filed on behalf of her granddaughter Kea M. Davis (the "plaintiff"), seeking a judgment reversing the denial of her application for Supplemental Social Security Income Benefits.*fn1 Currently before the court is the defendant's motion for judgment of affirmance and the plaintiff's motion for judgment of reversal or a remand to the Social Security Administration, both of which were filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006). After carefully considering the plaintiff's complaint, the administrative record, the parties' motions, and all memoranda of law and exhibits related thereto,*fn2 the Court concludes that it must grant the defendant's motion for judgment of affirmance and deny the plaintiff's motion for reversal for the reasons that follow.

I. Background

The following facts are part of the administrative record on review. The plaintiff was born on July 18, 1990, and was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a condition which required surgical repair. Administrative Record (the "A.R.") at 49-50, 301. In August of 1990, the plaintiff's mother applied for Supplemental Social Security Income Benefits on behalf of the plaintiff. Id. at 49-61. The request for benefits were granted in December of 1990. Id. at 62. The plaintiff was awarded and received supplemental benefits until August, 21, 1998, at which time they were terminated. Id. at 65. The regional commissioner who terminated the benefits noted that while Kea "was born with a heart defect that required surgery in the first year of her life, . . . her condition was successfully treated and [had] now stabilized." Id. at 67. Finding that Kea's "condition [did] not cause marked or severe functional limitations," the commissioner "decided that [Kea's] condition [was] not disabling under [the Social Security Administration's] rules." Id.

In response to the cessation of benefits, the plaintiff, through her grandmother, filed a request for reconsideration, which the agency denied. Id. at 71. The plaintiff appealed, and in July of 1999 attended a hearing to determine her continued eligibility for benefits. Id. at 75-87. During that hearing, the plaintiff's grandmother testified about her granddaughter's behavioral and cognitive problems, stating that she had "problems following instructions" and was "easily distracted from completing a task," which "could be" due to "a problem with [her] comprehension." Id. at 89.

Despite this testimony, the hearing officer affirmed the cessation of the supplemental benefits. Id. at 94. He "concluded that the claimant ha[d] less than marked limitation in the areas of cognitive/communicative development[] and motor function." Id. at 93. He further noted that, "[all] other areas of childhood development and function were considered age-appropriate and without any degree of restriction." Id.

Following the hearing on the plaintiff's motion for reconsideration, the plaintiff requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") to review the cessation determination. Id. at 99. In preparation for the hearing, the plaintiff submitted to physical and aptitude exams. Id. at 132, 134. On August 31, 2000, the ALJ ruled against the plaintiff, affirming the decision to cease her supplemental benefits. Id. at 374-79. Thereafter, the plaintiff requested that the Social Security Administration Appeals Council review the ALJ's opinion. Id. at 380. The appeals council denied this request, prompting the plaintiff to file her complaint with this Court. Id. at 383-84.

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court remanded the case to the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration because the cassette tape of the original administrative hearing had been lost. Id. at 386-87. On August 21, 2002, a supplemental hearing was held before a different ALJ, who again affirmed the cessation decision. Id. at 6-21. The plaintiff's and defendant's current motions followed.*fn3

In support of her motion for judgment of reversal, the plaintiff argues that the ALJ "failed to properly develop the administrative record." Pl.'s Mem. at 6. Specifically, the plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to develop the record in two respects: (1) by "refus[ing] to allow the record to be left open for more than 30 days so that the Plaintiff's school records could be obtained," id. at 9, and (2) by failing to "obtain[] a consultative examination" to "determine the Plaintiff's level of functioning," id. at 10-11. "As a result" of these purported failings, the plaintiff claims that "the final administrative decision of the Commissioner fails to be supported by substantial evidence and must be reversed." Id. at 11.

On the other hand, the defendant requests that the Court affirm the ALJ's decision and deny the plaintiff's motion for judgment of reversal, Def.'s Mem. at 3, arguing that the ALJ's decision "is supported by substantial evidence," id. at 12. Regarding the plaintiff's claim that the ALJ failed to leave the record open for more than 30 days, the defendant argues that the ALJ "agreed to, and did, leave the record open for 30 days following the . . . administrative hearing," during which the "[p]laintiff did not submit any additional evidence," id. at 13, and "while the plaintiff requested more time to submit evidence," the defendant contends that the "request did not contain any specific reason for the . . . extension," id. Regarding the plaintiff's claim that the ALJ failed to order a consultative examination, the defendant counters that the "plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that there was any need for the ALJ to order [an examination]," id. at 15, given the extensive testimony by the plaintiff's grandmother, id. at 14.

II. Standard of Review

As noted above, both parties seek relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Under this statute, a court reviewing a Social Security Administration's benefit determination is "confined to determining whether the [ALJ's] decision . . . [was] supported by substantial evidence in the record." Brown v. Bowen, 794 F.2d 703, 705 (D.C. Cir. 1986). If the district court determines that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact" are "supported by substantial evidence," they "shall be conclusive." Id. "Substantial evidence" is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).

"[W]here a claim has been denied by the Commissioner of Social Security[,] . . . the court shall review only the question of conformity with such regulations and the validity of such regulations." 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g). Thus, the reviewing judge must uphold the ALJ's legal "determination if it . . . is not tainted by an error of law." Smith v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 1120, 1121 (D.C. Cir. 1987). Moreover, "[j]udicial review . . . is limited to determining ...


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