BROWN v. COLVIN
ORDER remanding the case under sentence four of section 250(g) of the Social Security Act for proceedings consistent with this opinion. Ordered by US MAGISTRATE JUDGE STEPHEN HYLES on 5/19/16. (AGH)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA
DIANNE BROWN o/b/o C.B.,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of Social Security,
CASE NO. 3:15-CV-57 MSH
Social Security Appeal
The Social Security Commissioner, by adoption of the Administrative Law
Judge’s (ALJ’s) determination, denied Claimant’s1 application for Supplemental Security
Income, finding that he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
Plaintiff, filing suit on Claimant’s behalf, contends that the
Commissioner’s decision was in error and seeks review under the relevant provisions of
42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c). All administrative remedies have been
exhausted. Both parties filed their written consents for all proceedings to be conducted
by the United States Magistrate Judge, including the entry of a final judgment directly
appealable to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(3).
The Court refers to Dianne Brown as Plaintiff and to the minor child, C.B., as Claimant.
The court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to a determination of
whether it is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards
were applied. Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 1000 (11th Cir. 1987) (per curiam).
“Substantial evidence is something more than a mere scintilla, but less than a
preponderance. If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, this
court must affirm, even if the proof preponderates against it.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d
1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court’s role in
reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The court may
not decide facts, re-weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the
Commissioner.2 Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). It must,
however, decide if the Commissioner applied the proper standards in reaching a decision.
Harrell v. Harris, 610 F.2d 355, 359 (5th Cir. 1980) (per curiam). The court must
scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner’s
Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).
However, even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision, it
must be affirmed if substantial evidence supports it. Id.
In a case where a child claimant is seeking entitlement to Title XVI benefits, the
following definition of disability applies:
Credibility determinations are left to the Commissioner and not to the courts. Carnes v.
Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1219 (11th Cir. 1991). It is also up to the Commissioner and not to the
courts to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Wheeler v. Heckler, 784 F.2d 1073, 1075 (11th Cir.
1986) (per curiam); see also Graham v. Bowen, 790 F.2d 1572, 1575 (11th Cir. 1986).
An 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).
Therefore, eligibility depends upon the presence of
“marked and severe functional limitations.” A sequential evaluation process is used to
determine if the child meets the statutory definition of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924 et
seq. Step one requires the ALJ to determine whether the child is engaging in substantial
gainful activity. If so, then the claim is denied. Step two requires that the ALJ determine
whether or not the child has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, defined
as more than a slight abnormality and causing more than minimal functional limitations.
If not, then the claim is denied.
Step three requires the ALJ to decide whether the impairment is medically or
functionally equivalent to impairments described in the listings of the regulations. To
assess functional equivalence to a listed impairment, the ALJ must evaluate the level of
the claimant child's ability to function in six domains: 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 yourself; and 6) health and physical wellbeing. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1)(i)-(vi). If the child has “marked” limitations in two
domains, or an “extreme” limitation in one domain, the child's impairment is the
functional equivalent of the impairments listed in the Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §
416.926a(a). A limitation is “marked” when the child's impairment or impairments
seriously interfere with his ability to independently initiate, sustain or complete activities.
20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i).
When measured by standardized testing, a marked
limitation is generally indicated by scores “at least two, but less than three, standard
deviations below the mean.”
An “extreme” limitation causes very serious
interference with the child's ability to independently initiate, sustain or complete
activities and is usually associated with standardized test “scores that are at least three
standard deviations below the mean.” Id. § 416.926a(e)(3)(I).
Whether the ALJ erred in rejecting an examining psychologist’s opinion.
Whether the ALJ erred in his evaluation of the medical and school records.
Plaintiff Dianne Brown filed an application for supplemental security income
(SSI) on May 18, 2012 seeking benefits on behalf of C.B., her minor nephew.3 Plaintiff’s
application was denied initially on August 21, 2012, and on reconsideration on
September 27, 2012. She filed a written request for an evidentiary hearing before an
administrative law judge (ALJ) on November 7, 2012, and the hearing was conducted on
November 20, 2013. At the hearing Plaintiff was represented by her attorney and gave
testimony. Claimant was ten years old at the time of the hearing and did not appear. The
ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s claim on January 27, 2014. Tr.
16-19, 40, 162, ECF No. 14. Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, which
Plaintiff is Claimant’s legal guardian.
was denied on April 15, 2015. Tr. 1-15. This appeal followed.
Statement of Facts and Evidence
Claimant, a male, was born in 2003 and was placed in Plaintiff’s custody shortly
following his birth. Tr. 162-164. Plaintiff alleged in the application for benefits that
Claimant is disabled due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression,
The ALJ found him to have severe impairments of ADHD,
oppositional defiant disorder, and learning disorder. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c); Finding No.
3, Tr. 22. The ALJ then found that these severe impairments, alone or in combination,
failed to meet or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments set forth
in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App’x 1. He further found that Claimant does not have
an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equals the severity of the
listings. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924(d), 416.926(a); Finding Nos. 4 & 5, Tr. 23. Thus, the ALJ
found Claimant not to be disabled as defined in the Social Security Act. Finding No. 6,
Plaintiff raises two issues in this action. She first contends that the ALJ erred by
rejecting the opinion of an examining psychologist about Claimant’s functional
limitations without good cause or adequate explanation. Pl.’s Br. 1, ECF No. 15. Next,
she asserts that the ALJ did not adequately evaluate the record evidence from medical
sources and school records in reaching his decision to deny her claim. Pl.’s Br. 2. The
Commissioner, in response, argues that the ALJ’s decision is well reasoned and based on
substantial evidence and any error in the evaluation of the record evidence is harmless.
Comm’r Br. 3-4, 14, ECF No. 17. The Court has determined, after a thorough review of
the record and the ALJ’s decision, that the opinion of the examining psychologist was
improperly considered and remand is required. Because remand is necessary on the first
issue, the Court declines to address Plaintiff’s second issue.
Matt Butryn, Ph.D., a clinical neurosychologist, evaluated Claimant on March 12,
2012 and April 12, 2012. Ex. 4F, Tr. 355. According to Dr. Butryn’s records, he
conducted a clinical interview with Claimant and Plaintiff and reviewed Claimant’s
medical and academic records. He also gave Claimant five diagnostic tests: Wechsler
Intelligence Scale for Children IV, Wechsler Individual Achievement Test II, Children’s
Memory Scale, Conners’ Continuous Performance Test Version II, and Behavior
Assessment System for Children. Tr. 355. In the section of his report captioned “Test
Summary” Dr. Butryn said Claimant “demonstrated one of the most severe negative
influences of underlying processing skills I have seen in several years of specializing in
attention deficit disorder pathology.” Tr. 356. He characterized Claimant’s performance
across subtests designed to gauge strengths in attention, concentration, processing speed
and sustained mental effort and focus as “far below average” and described the testing
results as establishing problems that “appear severe in intensity.” Id. These conclusions
are based on Claimant’s performance on one test—the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for
Children—and the clinical picture gets worse.
On the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test II, Claimant “scored far below
average” across the testing range in reading, arithmetic and spelling. Dr. Butryn
interpreted the scores on the WIAT II to show “no strengths relative to his age and grade
levels across this academic skills test battery.” Tr. 356. Reading skills were scored at
“far below average.” Id. On the third test, the Childhood Memory Scale, the scores
indicated “major pathology.”
Claimant’s scores on the Conners’ Continuous
Performance Test showed “significant problems” with attention and focus and
information/thought processing below average.
The last test, the Behavioral
Assessment System for Children, rated him as “clinically significant” for attention
problems, hyperactivity/impulsivity, and aggression and “far below average” for adaptive
In addressing Dr. Butryn’s assessments, the ALJ specifically afforded them
“significant weight.” Tr. 27. Inexplicably, however, the ALJ gave only “little weight” to
Dr. Butryn’s subsequent Childhood Functioning Questionnaire which was based on the
same testing assessments the ALJ found to merit “significant weight.” Ex.7F, Tr. 391.
While the Commissioner adroitly urges the Court to distinguish between the ALJ’s
decision to give significant weight to Dr. Butryn’s assessment but only little weight to his
opinion, that position is untenable and meritless in this case. Comm’r’s Br. 14 n.7.
Dr. Butryn’s report found at Exhibit 4F is a narrative recitation by an examining
specialist of conclusions from five different objective tests. It is extreme and consistently
See Tr. 355-57.
The Commissioner cannot both give such a dire clinical
characterization of Claimant significant weight and little weight at the same time, at least
not without a more complete and thorough explanation than is now before the Court. The
mere fact that eighteen months separated the testing from the preparation of the
questionnaire is not enough. Whether the Commissioner recontacts Dr. Butryn, seeks a
consultative examination, or does otherwise is her decision. Plaintiff’s contentions have
merit and remand is ordered.
For the reasons stated above, it is ordered that Plaintiff’s case be remanded to the
Social Security Commissioner, under sentence four of Section 205(g) of the Social
Security Act, for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. Furthermore, it is
ordered that the ALJ address both of Plaintiff’s enumerated errors on remand.
SO ORDERED, this 19th day of May, 2016.
/s/ Stephen Hyles
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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