United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
TYAISHA SMALLEY o/b/o V.J. a minor child, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
TERRENCE W. BOYLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
cause conies before the Court on cross-motions for judgment
on the pleadings. A hearing was held on these matters before
the undersigned on December 15, 2016, at Raleigh, North
Carolina. For the reasons discussed below, the decision of
the Commissioner is reversed.
Smalley, on behalf of her minor son V.J., brought this action
under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for review
of the final decision of the Commissioner denying V.J.'s
claim for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pursuant to
Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff protectively
filed for SSI on May 2, 2012, alleging V.J.'s disability
since February 9, 2012. After initial denials, a hearing was
held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who issued an
unfavorable ruling. The decision of the ALJ became the final
decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied
plaintiffs request for review. Plaintiff then timely sought
review of the Commissioner's decision in this Court.
the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), and
1383(c)(3), this Court's review of the Commissioner's
decision is limited to determining whether the decision, as a
whole, is supported by substantial evidence and whether the
Commissioner employed the correct legal standard.
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).
Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650,
653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation and
individual under the age of 18 shall be considered disabled
for the purposes of this subchapter 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 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). In assessing a childhood SSI claim, an ALJ
engages in a three step sequential evaluation as provided in
20 C.F.R. § 416.924.
at step one, the ALJ determined that V.J. had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date.
The ALJ found the claimant's post-traumatic stress
disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder (ADHD) to be severe impairments at step two, but
found at step three that V.J. did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments which met, medically equaled, or
functionally equaled the severity of one of the listed
impairments (Listing). Thus, the ALJ concluded that V.J. had
not been disabled since the date of his application.
the ALJ correctly followed the three-step evaluation process
for assessing childhood disability claims, his finding at
step three is not supported by substantial evidence. In
determining whether a claimant has an impairment or
combination of impairments which functionally equals the
Listings, the ALJ considers the claimant's functioning in
six domains. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a. To functionally equal
the Listings, a claimant must be found to have either
"marked" limitations in two domains or
"extreme" limitations in one domain. Id.
The ALJ found in his functional domain analysis that V.J. had
marked limitations in the domain of attending and completing
tasks, but less than marked limitation in the domains of
interacting and relating with others and acquiring and using
information. Tr. 29-32. The ALJ further found that V.J. had
no limitation in the remaining functional domains of moving
and manipulating objects, the ability to care for himself,
and health and physical well-being. Tr. 32-34.
contends and the Court agrees that substantial evidence does
not support the ALJ's finding that V.J. had less than
marked limitations in the domain of interacting and relating
to others. This domain concerns "how well a child is
able to initiate and sustain emotional connections with
others, develop and use the language of the community,
cooperate with others, comply with rules, respond to
criticism, and respect and take care of the possessions of
others." Tr. 31. A marked limitation is one which is
more than moderate but less than extreme, and which seriously
limits day-to-day functioning. 20 C.F.R. §
416.926a(e)(2)(i). As bases for his finding that V.J. had
less than marked limitations in this domain, the ALJ noted
that V.J.'s social deficits have warranted enhanced
services, that his teacher's questionnaire showed that
V.J. served in a small self-contained class, and that V.J.
reported that he made friends easily and engaged in sports.
the ALJ uses V.J.'s needing enhanced services at school
and enrollment in a small, self-contained class as evidence
that his limitations are less than marked, such limitations
in fact are evidence that V.J.'s has serious limitations
in this domain. Moreover, V.J.'s own statement that he
makes friends easily is not supported by the record. For
example, in 2012, V.J. was reported to have hit, slapped, and
punched a child and hit and scratched another child who
attempted to stop V.J. while riding the school bus. Tr. 355.
The bus driver was forced to pull over in order to stop V.J.
Id. Also in 2012, V.J.'s teachers reported that
V.J. had to be restrained, threatened another student, had
yelling and screaming tantrums, punched another child in the
head, splashed water in other students' faces, destroyed
a new pencil, and used profanity toward his teachers. Tr.
356-62. In 2013, V.J. was reported to have chased and hit a
child with his fists, threatened to kill his teacher, and
kicked and bit a teacher. Tr. 365-67. V.J.'s teacher
noted that he became easily frustrated when told no and that
he tended to play alone. Tr. 374. A summary of evaluation
worksheet for a child with serious emotional disability
prepared in 2013 noted that V.J. has struggled with his
behavior since preschool and that, while his behavior had
improved dramatically since entering kindergarten, V.J.
continued to display "significant emotional and
behavioral problems that may impede his learning or the
learning of others in the classroom." Tr. 381-82.
a 2014 evaluation, V.J.'s mother noted that he sometimes
acts like he cannot be in control and V.J. was found to have
"difficulty managing his emotions .. . and displays many
feelings through physical aggression and property
destruction." Tr. 691. A licensed clinical social worker
asked to review V.J.'s case in 2014 noted that he was
detached from others, had a restricted affect, and had
irritability/anger and concentration problems. Tr. 719.
the record supports that V.J. is an intelligent child who has
plainly made progress while in school with support from his
teachers and his mother, it further plainly supports a
finding that he continues to have marked limitations in the
domain of interacting and relating to others, most
specifically in cooperating with others, complying with
rules, responding to criticism, and respecting and taking
care of the possessions of others.