United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division
J.N.F., a minor child, by Paul Eaglin, guardian ad litem, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
TERRENCE W. BOYLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
cause comes before the Court on cross-motions for judgment on
the pleadings. A hearing was held on these matters before the
undersigned on February 21, 2018, at Raleigh, North Carolina.
For the reasons discussed below, the decision of the
Commissioner is reversed.
Court-appointed guardian ad litem
Paul Eaglin brings this matter on behalf of J.N.F., a minor,
under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for review
of the final decision of the Commissioner denying
J.N.F.'s claim for Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The
claimant protectively filed for SSI on February 28, 2012,
alleging J.N.F's disability since April 19, 2008. After
initial denials, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an
unfavorable ruling after a video-hearing held on September
29, 2014. The decision of the ALJ became the final decision
of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied
plaintiffs request for review. The claimant then timely
sought review of the Commissioner's decision in this
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
person under the age of 18 will be considered to be disabled
under the Social Security Act if that person 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 twelve months or
more. 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. §
was born in 2007 and was a minor when he applied for SSI. At
step one, the ALJ determined that J.N.F. had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date and
that his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),
borderline intellectual functioning, and history of
speech/language delay were severe impairments at step two.
The ALJ found at step three that J.N.F. did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments which met or
medically equaled the severity of one of the listed
impairments (Listing). Specifically, the ALJ found that
J.N.F.'s ADHD had not resulted in marked limitations in
two areas of age-appropriate functioning as required under
Listing 112.11, that J.N.F.'s IQ was above 70 and
therefore he did not meet the borderline intellectual
functioning Listing, and that his speech delay had not
resulted in ineffective verbal communication for his age as
required by Listing 111.09. Also at step three, the ALJ
determined that J.N.F.'s impairments did not functionally
equal a Listing. The ALJ found that J.N.F.'s severe
impairments did not result in "marked" limitations
in two domains of functioning or an "extreme"
limitation in one domain, and thus found J.N.F. not to be
the ALJ correctly followed the three-step evaluation process
for assessing childhood disability claims, her 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, an ALJ considers the claimant's functioning in
six domains: acquiring and using information, attending and
completing tasks, interacting and relating with others,
moving about and manipulating objects, caring for oneself,
and health and physical well-being. 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 an "extreme" limitation in one domain.
Id. A limitation is considered "marked" if
it is more than moderate but less than extreme, and a
limitation is extreme when it is determined to be more than
marked. Id. The ALJ found that J.N.F. had marked
limitations in attending and completing tasks and had less
than marked limitations in acquiring and using information,
interacting and relating with others, and ability to care for
contends and the Court agrees that substantial evidence does
not support the ALJ's finding that J.N.F. had only marked
and not extreme limitations in the domain of attending and
completing tasks. This domain concerns how well a claimant is
able to focus and maintain his attention and how well a
claimant begins, carries through, and finishes activities,
including the pace at which he can perform activities and the
ease with which he can change them. 20 C.F.R. §
416.926a. As noted by the ALJ, J.N.F. has ADHD and requires
psychiatric medication. J.N.F.'s kindergarten and first
grade teachers assessed him as having "serious"
problems in focusing long enough to finish an assigned
activity, waiting to take turns, and working without
distracting himself or others, Tr. 205; 263, and "very
serious" problems with completing class/homework
assignments, working without distracting self or others, and
working at a reasonable pace/finishing on time. Tr. 285.
These problems were noted to occur either hourly or daily.
J.N.F.'s kindergarten teacher noted that he was
disruptive in class and that he had a hard time focusing on
his classwork and participating in group activities. Tr. 202.
In his first year of first grade, J.N.F.'s teacher noted
in a letter to J.N.F.'s mother that J.N.F.
"constantly yells out and disturbs the class" that
he "does not follow rules or directions" and that
this was affecting J.N.F.'s learning. Tr. 237. In his
second year of first grade, J.N.F. had to be sent to another
classroom for being disruptive within the first six weeks of
school. Tr. 261; 263. Thus, while there may be evidence of
some improvement from J.N.F.'s medications, see,
e.g., Tr. 360, the reports from J.N.F.'s teachers,
who interacted with him five days a week during the school
year, demonstrate an extreme limitation in this area of
further erred in not finding that J.N.F. had marked
limitations in the domain of acquiring and using information.
This domain concerns how well a claimant is able to learn or
acquire new information. 20 C.F.R. 416.962a(g). J.N.F.'s
teacher during his second year of first grade noted that he
had serious problems comprehending oral instructions, could
not accomplish any tasks independently, and needed
step-by-step instructions. Tr. 262. She further noted that
J.N.F. struggled with math problems he should have mastered
in first grade and that he is "having trouble leaning
the process of doing a problem." Tr. 260. J.N.F. has
consistently been found to perform below grade level in
reading and writing, even after repeating the first grade,
Tr. 280; 261, and has been diagnosed with borderline
intellectual functioning. Substantial evidence does not
support the ALJ's conclusion that J.N.F.'s
limitations in this domain were less than marked. For
example, the ALJ relied on J.N.F.'s teacher's report
that, while he could not perform work independently, J.N.F
got extra help through tutoring at least two or three times
per week. Tr. 281. That J.N.F. might benefit from tutoring
does not suggest that he does not have marked limitations in
acquiring information, however. Accordingly, the Court
concludes that the substantial evidence in the record
supports that J.N.F. had marked limitations in the domain of
acquiring and using information.
for Award of Benefits
decision of whether to reverse and remand for benefits or
reverse and remand for a new hearing is one that "lies
within the sound discretion of the district court."
Edwards v. Bowen, 672 F.Supp. 230, 237 (E.D. N.C.
1987); see also Evans v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 1012,
1015 (4th Cir. 1984). When "[o]n the state of the
record, [plaintiffs] entitlement to benefits is wholly
established, " reversal for award of benefits rather
than remand is appropriate. Crider v. Harris, 624
F.2d 15, 17 (4th Cir. 1980). The Fourth Circuit has held that
it is appropriate for a federal court to "reverse
without remanding where the record does not contain
substantial evidence to support a decision denying coverage
under the correct legal standard and when reopening the
record for more evidence would serve no purpose."
Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1012 (4th Cir.
1974). Remand, rather than reversal, is required, however,
when the ALJ fails to explain his reasoning and there is
ambivalence in the medical record, precluding a court from
"meaningful review." Radford v. Colvin,
734 F.3d 288, 296 (4th Cir. 2013).
Court in its discretion finds that reversal and remand for an
award of benefits is appropriate in this instance as the ALJ
has clearly explained the basis for her decision and there is
no ambivalence in the record. The record properly supports a
finding that J.N.F. suffered from extreme limitations in one
domain of functioning and, alternatively, marked limitations
in two domains of functioning and therefore that a finding of
disabled under 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a) was ...