Hanna v. Social Security Administration
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER affirming the Commissioner's decision; pltf's appeal is denied. Signed by Magistrate Judge Beth Deere on 11/5/13. (vjt)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CASE NO.: 4:12CV00680 BD
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner,
Social Security Administration1
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Amanda Hanna appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her claim for Supplemental
Security Income (“SSI”) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”).
For reasons set out below, the decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed.
On September 4, 2009, Ms. Hanna protectively filed for SSI, alleging disability
beginning on October 7, 1994, due to bipolar disorder and back problems.2 (Tr. 100-101,
118) Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. At Ms. Hanna’s request,
an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on April 5, 2011, at which Ms.
Hanna appeared with her attorney. (Tr. 34) At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony
from Ms. Hanna and a vocational expert (“VE”). (Tr. 34-59)
On February 14, 2013, Carolyn W. Colvin became the Acting Commissioner of
the Social Security Administration. She has been substituted for named Defendant
Michael J. Astrue under Fed.R.Civ.P. 25.
At the administrative hearing, Ms. Hanna amended her alleged disability onset
date to September 4, 2009. (Tr. 40)
The ALJ issued a decision on June 22, 2011, finding that Ms. Hanna was not
disabled under the Act. (Tr. 15-29) On September 24, 2012, the Appeals Council denied
Ms. Hanna’s request for review, making the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final
decision. (Tr. 1-5)
Ms. Hanna was 32 years old at the time of the hearing. (Tr. 41) She had earned a
General Educational Development certificate and had tried to attend college. (Tr. 41) She
lived with her husband and two minor children. (Tr. 42) She smoked cigarettes. (Tr. 44)
Ms. Hanna described very limited daily activities, but did yoga and light cardio for
exercise. (Tr. 51)
Decision of the Administrative Law Judge3
The ALJ found that Ms. Hanna had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since her alleged amended disability onset date. (Tr. 17) And he found that Ms. Hanna
had the following severe impairments: asthma, degenerative disc disease of the cervical
spine, and depression (Tr. 17) The ALJ also found, however, that Ms. Hanna did not
The ALJ followed the required sequential analysis to determine: (1) whether the
claimant was engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant had a
severe impairment; (3) if so, whether the impairment (or combination of impairments)
met or equaled a listed impairment; and (4) if not, whether the impairment (or
combination of impairments) prevented the claimant from performing past relevant work;
and (5) if so, whether the impairment (or combination of impairments) prevented the
claimant from performing any other jobs available in significant numbers in the national
economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(g) (2005).
have an impairment or combination of impairments meeting or equaling an impairment
listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. § 416.926). (Tr. 17-19)
The ALJ determined that Ms. Hanna had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
to perform light work, with occasional lifting and carrying up to 20 pounds, and frequent
lifting and carrying of 10 pounds, except that she would have to work in a controlled
environment free from dust, fumes, smoke, and temperature extremes, and was limited to
work involving simple tasks, simple instructions, and only incidental contact with the
public. (Tr. 19-28)
Although Ms. Hanna had worked, she had never worked at the level of substantial
gainful activity, so she had no past relevant work. (Tr. 28) After considering VE
testimony, the ALJ determined that Ms. Hanna could perform significant jobs existing in
the national economy. (Tr. 28-29) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Ms. Hanna was not
disabled.4 (Tr. 29)
The standard of review in this case is whether there is substantial evidence in the
record as a whole to support the decision. Boettcher v. Astrue, 652 F.3d 860, 863 (8th
Cir. 2011); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “less than a preponderance, but
sufficient for reasonable minds to find it adequate to support the decision.” Id. (citing
Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005)). In reviewing the record as a
whole, the Court must consider both evidence that detracts from the Commissioner’s
decision and evidence that supports the decision; but, the decision cannot be reversed,
“simply because some evidence may support the opposite conclusion.” Id. (citing Pelkey
v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 578 (8th Cir. 2006)).
Plaintiff’s Arguments for Reversal
Ms. Hanna claims that the ALJ’s decision was not supported by substantial
evidence because: (1) he rejected the opinion of a treating physician; (2) he
underestimated the effects of Ms. Hanna’s mental impairments; and (3) he erred in
finding Ms. Hanna could perform light work. (#11)
Treating Physician’s Opinion
An ALJ is generally obliged to give controlling weight to a treating physician’s
medical opinions when the opinions are supported by the record. See Ellis v. Barnhart,
392 F.3d 988, 994-995 (8th Cir. 2005) (citing Randolph v. Barnhart, 386 F.3d 835, 839
(8th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)). But an ALJ may discount or even disregard
the opinion of a treating physician when other medical assessments are better supported.
Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793 (8th Cir. 2012).
In this case, Ms. Hanna argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of Laurie
O. Hughes, M.D. (#11, pp. 19-20) Dr. Hughes performed a spinal fusion on Ms. Hanna
in 1994 for adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. In 1998, Dr. Hughes provided an opinion to
the Social Security Administration at Ms. Hanna’s request.5 (Tr. 150) In that opinion,
Dr. Hughes noted that Ms. Hanna had no neurological deficits. (Tr. 150) Ms. Hanna was
It should be noted that Dr. Hughes provided this opinion over eleven years prior
to Ms. Hanna’s alleged September 4, 2009 disability onset date.
limited, however, to lifting and carrying a maximum of 25 pounds. (Tr. 150) She could
handle objects normally and walk less than two miles without aggravating her back pain.
Ms. Hanna was expected to have back pain with prolonged sitting or standing more than a
couple of hours. (Tr. 150) The ALJ found the opinion “not to be persuasive.” (Tr. 22)
Ms. Hanna argues this was error. There are, however, multiple problems with her
First, Ms. Hanna has not shown that Dr. Hughes’s opinion related to her condition
during the relevant period. Dr. Hughes gave the opinion over a decade before Ms.
Hanna’s alleged disability onset. CT scans taken in 2009 showed no acute or significant
findings and only minimal degenerative changes. (Tr. 458-462)
Second, Ms. Hanna’s treating physician during the relevant period, Henry Allen,
M.D., noted on the date of Ms. Hanna’s alleged onset that she could perform “light duty
Community Service.” (Tr. 449) Ms. Hanna argues that this “light duty” is not light work,
but State agency physicians concluded, after reviewing the medical records, that Ms.
Hanna could perform a full range of light work. (Tr. 493-509)
Third, and most important, nothing in Dr. Hughes’s opinion would prevent the
performance of light work. To perform light work, Ms. Hanna must be able to lift and
carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. Dr. Hughes limited Ms. Hanna
to lifting and carrying a maximum of 25 pounds. (Tr. 150) Ms. Hanna could handle
objects normally and had no neurological deficits. (Tr. 150) The full range of light work
requires an individual to stand or walk, off and on, for a total of 6 hours of an 8-hour
workday. Dr. Hughes noted that Ms. Hanna could walk less than two miles without any
aggravation of her back pain. (Tr. 150)
Dr. Hughes did opine that Ms. Hanna would be expected to have back pain with
prolonged sitting or standing. (Tr. 150) But that is the case with millions of people who
work full-time, day in day out, at all exertional levels. As with almost every claimant
with a back impairment, there is no doubt that Ms. Hanna was experiencing pain; the real
issue is the severity of that pain. Gowell v. Apfel, 242 F.3d 793, 796 (8th Cir. 2001).
When viewed along with the ALJ’s RFC findings, the ALJ’s consideration of Dr.
Hughes’s opinion was not error.
Ms. Hanna argues that the ALJ erred by underestimating the effects of her mental
impairments. (#11, pp. 20-21) The ALJ found that Ms. Hanna had severe depression and
limited her to jobs that involve simple tasks, simple instructions, and only incidental
contact with the public. (Tr. 17, 19) Ms. Hanna seems to indicate that she was further
limited by an inability to interact appropriately with supervisors and co-workers. The
record, however, supports the ALJ’s findings.
Ms. Hanna specifically notes three Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”)
scores to support her argument that the ALJ “grossly underestimated” her mental
impairments. (#11, pp. 20-21) It should be noted that mental health professionals no
longer use GAF scores. The GAF was dropped from the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders due to the GAF’s “conceptual lack of clarity (i.e. including
symptoms, suicide risk, and disabilities in its descriptors) and questionable psychometrics
in routine practice.” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 16 (5th ed.)
Am. Psychiatric Ass’n 2013. As the Eighth Circuit has recognized, a claimant’s GAF
score may have little or no bearing on the claimant’s social and occupational functioning.
Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 973 (8th Cir. 2010). The records associated with Ms.
Hanna’s mental treatment show that the ALJ properly assessed her mental limitations.
This case does not present a long history of GAF scores that would support reliance on
the scores over the rest of the records.
On March 24, 2009, six months before Ms. Hanna’s alleged disability onset, she
was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment. (Tr. 426-429) She had been kicked out of her
home, had no place to live, had discontinued her medications, and had developed an alterego. (Tr. 426) She was assessed with depression, back pain, an upper respiratory
infection, and drug abuse. (Tr. 428) Ms. Hanna was also consuming a half case of beer
daily. (Tr. 426) She was stabilized on celexa and discharged on March 26, 2009. (Tr.
427) By the time of the administrative hearing, she no longer abused drugs. (Tr. 44) Ms.
Hanna drank alcohol socially, which would support an ability to interact in a socially
adequate manner. (Tr. 44) She was not seeing a mental health professional. (Tr. 55)
Ms. Hanna did not testify about any depression-related limitations in her ability to work.
Ms. Hanna argues she has a “long history of instability and inability to interact
appropriately with supervisors and co-workers.” (#11, p. 21) But as she stated herself,
she has never “really worked much at all.”6 (Tr. 45) She said she lost her last job for
“exploding” on the boss, but stated on both her disability filings and at the hearing that
back pain caused her inablity to work. (Tr. 44-46, 118, 465) In fact, Ms. Hanna noted
that her last boss told her she was wonderful. (Tr. 44)
It appears that there are only two medical records relating to Ms. Hanna’s mental
condition during the relevant period. In the records, Ms. Hanna noted that her stress level
was high from dealing with a custody dispute. (Tr. 510-512) Her primary care physician
prescribed Xanax. (Tr. 510) This is hardly the type or volume of medical evidence that
would support severe mental limitations.
Two months after her alleged disability onset, Samuel Hester, PhD, found that Ms.
Hanna could communicate and interact in a socially adequate and effective manner, and
cope with the mental demands of basic work tasks. (Tr. 469-470) The ALJ found more
mental limitations than supported by Dr. Hester’s opinion. State agency physicians also
It appears that Ms. Hanna had never worked, at any point in her life, at the level
of substantial gainful activity. (Tr. 107)
found no more than moderate limitations in any of Ms. Hanna’s mental functions. (Tr.
The ALJ adequately considered Ms. Hanna’s depression and related limitations.
(Tr. 24-26) The record would actually support less mental limitations than found by the
Ms. Hanna argues that the ALJ erred in finding she could perform light work.
(#11, pp. 21-22) She relies on Dr. Hughes’s opinion that she could not stand for long
periods. (#11, p. 21) As noted, Dr. Hughes gave the opinion over a decade before Ms.
Hanna’s alleged disability onset. More importantly, however, is that Dr. Hughes never
said Ms. Hanna could not stand for long periods. Dr. Hughes stated that Ms. Hanna was
expected to have back pain with prolonged standing of more than a couple of hours. (Tr.
150) But as noted, millions of people work with back pain. The record is highly
supportive of Ms. Hanna’s ability to perform light work.
The Court has reviewed all of the evidence in the record. There is sufficient
evidence in the record as a whole to support the Commissioner’s determination that,
despite her impairments, Amanda Hanna retained the functional capacity to perform jobs
existing in significant numbers in the economy.
Accordingly, her appeal is DENIED; the Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED,
and the Clerk of Court is directed to close the case.
DATED this 5th day of November, 2013.
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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