Norris v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge J Foy Guin, Jr on 6/28/12. (CTS, )
2012 Jun-28 PM 02:39
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
Commissioner of Social Security,
) CIVIL ACTION NO. 11-G-3154-E
The plaintiff, Felicia Norris, brings this action pursuant to the provisions of
section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial
review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (the Commissioner) denying her application for Social Security Benefits.
Plaintiff timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies available before the
Commissioner. Accordingly, this case is now ripe for judicial review under 205(g) of the
Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The sole function of this court is to determine whether the decision of the
Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards
were applied. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). To that
end this court “must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached
is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth, at 1239 (citations
omitted). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Bloodsworth, at 1239.
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
In order to qualify for disability benefits and to establish his entitlement for
a period of disability, a claimant must be disabled. The Act defines disabled as the
“inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically
determinable physical or mental impairment 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 twelve
months . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 416(i). For the purposes of
establishing entitlement to disability benefits, “physical or mental impairment” is defined
as “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological
abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).
In determining whether a claimant is disabled, Social Security regulations
outline a five-step sequential process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (a)-(f). The Commissioner
must determine in sequence:
whether the claimant is currently employed;
whether she has a severe impairment;
whether her impairment meets or equals one listed by the Secretary;
whether the claimant can perform her past work; and
whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the
Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d
1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “Once the claimant has satisfied Steps One and Two, she
will automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed impairment. If the
claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform her past work, the burden
shifts to the Secretary to show that the claimant can perform some other job.” Pope, at
477; accord Foot v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995).
In the instant case, the ALJ, David L. Stephens, determined the plaintiff met
the first two tests, but concluded did not suffer from a listed impairment. The ALJ found
the plaintiff unable to perform her past relevant work. Once it is determined that the
plaintiff cannot return to his prior work, “the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show
other work the claimant can do.” Foote, at 1559. When a claimant is not able to perform
the full range of work at a particular exertional level, the Commissioner may not
exclusively rely on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the grids). Foote, at 1558-59.
The presence of a non-exertional impairment (such as pain, fatigue or mental illness) also
prevents exclusive reliance on the grids. Foote, at 1559. In such cases “the
[Commissioner] must seek expert vocational testimony. Foote, at 1559.
THE STANDARD FOR REJECTING THE TESTIMONY OF A
As the Sixth Circuit has noted: “It is firmly established that the medical
opinion of a treating physician must be accorded greater weight than those of physicians
employed by the government to defend against a disability claim.” Hall v. Bowen, 837
F.2d 272, 276 (6th Cir. 1988). “The testimony of a treating physician must ordinarily be
given substantial or considerable weight unless good cause is shown to the contrary.”
McGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986); accord Elam v. Railroad
Retirement Bd., 921 F.2d 1210, 1216 (11th Cir. 1991). In addition, the Commissioner
“must specify what weight is given to a treating physician’s opinion and any reason for
giving it no weight ....” McGregor, 786 F.2d at 1053. If the Commissioner ignores or
fails to properly refute a treating physician’s testimony, as a matter of law that testimony
must be accepted as true. McGregor, 786 F.2d at 1053; Elam, 921 F.2d at 1216. The
Commissioner’s reasons for refusing to credit a claimant’s treating physician must be
supported by substantial evidence. See McGregor, 786 F.2d at 1054; cf. Hale v. Bowen,
831 F.2d 1007, 1012 (11th Cir. 1987)(articulation of reasons for not crediting a
claimant’s subjective pain testimony must be supported by substantial evidence).
THE IMPACT OF A VOCATIONAL EXPERT’S TESTIMONY
It is common for a vocational expert (“VE”) to testify at a claimant’s
hearing before an ALJ, and in many cases such testimony is required. The VE is typically
asked whether the claimant can perform his past relevant work or other jobs that exist in
significant numbers within the national economy based upon hypothetical questions about
the claimant’s abilities in spite of his impairments. “In order for a vocational expert’s
testimony to constitute substantial evidence, the ALJ must pose a hypothetical question
which comprises all of the claimant’s impairments.” Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1229
(11th Cir. 1999).
If the claimant is unable to perform his prior relevant work the burden shifts
to the Commissioner to establish that he can perform other work. In such cases, if the
vocational expert testimony upon which the ALJ relies is based upon a hypothetical
question that does not take into account all of the claimant’s impairments, the
Commissioner has not met that burden, and the action should be reversed with
instructions that the plaintiff be awarded the benefits claimed. This is so even if no other
hypothetical question is posed to the VE. See Gamer v. Secretary of Health and Human
Services, 815 F.2d 1275, 1280 (9th Cir. 1987)(noting that when the burden is on the
Commissioner to show the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not obligated to
pose hypothetical questions in order to prevail). However, it is desirable for the VE to be
asked whether the claimant can perform any jobs if his subjective testimony or the
testimony of his doctors is credited. Such a hypothetical question would allow disability
claims to be expedited in cases in which the ALJ’s refusal to credit that testimony is
found not to be supported by substantial evidence.
In Varney v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 859 F.2d 1396 (9 th
Cir. 1987), the Ninth Circuit adopted the Eleventh Circuit rule which holds that if the
articulated reasons for rejecting the plaintiff’s pain testimony are not supported by
substantial evidence, that testimony is accepted as true as a matter of law. Id at 1401.
The court noted that “[a]mong the most persuasive arguments supporting the rule is the
need to expedite disability claims.” Id. If the VE is asked whether the claimant could
perform other jobs if his testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms is accepted as
true, the case might be in a posture that would avoid the necessity of a remand. As
Varney recognized, if the VE testifies the claimant can perform no jobs if his pain
testimony is accepted as true, the only relevant issue would be whether that testimony was
properly discredited. Id. This also holds true for the opinions of treating physicians.
In the present case the plaintiff alleges she is disabled due to panic attacks,
depressive disorder, anxiety, and muscle control disorder. The plaintiff argues that GAF
scores assessed during her treatment at the Cheaha Mental Health Center, together with
the testimony of the vocational expert at her hearing, establish that she is disabled.
During the plaintiff’s treatment GAF scores were assessed on a number of
occasions. An intake assessment on February 8, 2008, shows that the plaintiff was
assessed a GAF score of 35 by a social worker. Record 188. The Global Assessment of
Functioning (GAF) Scale is used to report an individual’s overall level of functioning.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 32 (4 th Edition, Text Revision)
(“DSM-IV-TR”). A GAF rating of 31-40 reflects: “Some impairment in reality testing
or communication (e.g., speech is at times illogical, obscure, or irrelevant) OR major
impairment in several areas, such as work or school, family relations, judgment,
thinking, or mood (e.g., depressed man avoids friends, neglects family, and is unable to
work; child frequently beats up younger children, is defiant at home, and is failing at
school).” DSM-IV-TR at 34 (emphasis in original). On February 3, 2009, the plaintiff
was assessed a GAF score of 45 by her therapist as part of a master treatment plan.
Record 179. A GAF of 41-50 indicates: “Serious symptoms (e.g., suicidal ideation,
severe obsessional rituals, frequent shoplifting) or any serious impairment in social,
occupational, or school functioning (e.g., no friends, unable to keep a job).” DSM-IV
at 32 (emphasis in original). This treatment plan was approved by the plaintiff’s treating
psychiatrist on February 9, 2009. Record 181. On July 28, 2009, the plaintiff was
assessed a GAF score of 50 by her therapist on an intake assessment and on a master
treatment plan. Record 213. The plaintiff’s master treatment plan was approved by her
treating psychiatrist on July 30, 2009. Record 215.
In addition to these GAF scores reported by treating sources, the plaintiff
was assessed a GAF score of 58 by the Social Security Administration’s consultative
psychologist, Dr. Kline, of March 19, 2009.1 Record 192. A GAF rating of 51-60
reflects: “Moderate symptoms (e.g., flat affect and circumstantial speech, occasional
panic attacks) OR moderate difficulty in social, occupational, or school functioning
(e.g., few friends, conflicts with peers or co-workers.)” DSM-IV-TR at 34 (emphasis in
At the plaintiff’s ALJ hearing the vocational expert was asked the following
Assume you have a person that has GAF scores at 50 and
below, from a vocational standpoint, what would that – how
would that be expected to the effect [sic] a person?
Well, that would indicate that the person would be too
psychologically impaired to be expected to maintain the
persistence and pace at all work or attendance necessary for
The ALJ’s decision contains numerous errors. The ALJ incorrectly asserts
“the record shows that the treating mental health sources have never assessed a GAF of
less than 50 for this claimant.” Record 19. The plaintiff’s treating psychiatrist approved
of treatment plans that contain GAF scores of 45 and 50. These GAF scores must be
considered to reflect the opinions of the plaintiff’s treating psychiatrist. Therefore, the
ALJ’s finding that no treating mental health source assessed a GAF score less than 50 is
contradicted by the medical record and is not supported by substantial evidence.
The ALJ did not discuss our rely upon Dr. Kline’s report.
The ALJ also incorrectly characterized a GAF score of 50 as representing
only moderate symptoms. Record 18. As discussed above, a GAF score of 50 represents
the presence of serious symptoms.
The ALJ stated in his opinion that the vocational expert’s testimony was
outside of his area of expertise. However, the vocational expert clearly was asked to
assess the vocational impact of GAF scores of 50 or below. The ALJ cites no evidence to
support his conclusion that such an opinion was outside the vocational expert’s area of
expertise and this finding is not supported by substantial evidence.
The ALJ did not articulate reasons supported by substantial evidence for
refusing to credit the GAF scores assessed by the plaintiff’s treating psychiatrist.
Therefore, these GAF scores must be accepted as true. The uncontradicted expert
vocational testimony is that the GAF scores assessed by the plaintiff’s treating
psychiatrist indicate the presence of psychological symptoms that would prevent work.
The ALJ cited no evidence to support his refusal to accept the vocational expert’s
testimony. Therefore, the testimony of the vocational expert establishes that the plaintiff
is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The action will be remanded
instructions plaintiff be awarded the benefits claimed.
DONE and ORDERED 28 June 2012.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
J. FOY GUIN, JR.
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?