Johnson v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION Signed by Honorable James R. Marschewski on July 2, 2013. (sh)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
FORT SMITH DIVISION
Civil No. 12-2126
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Jasmine Johnson, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review
of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her claim
for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), and supplemental security income
(“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (hereinafter “the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§
423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). In this judicial review, the court must determine whether there is
substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the Commissioner’s decision. See 42 U.S.C.
The Plaintiff filed her applications for SSI on May 11, 2011, alleging an onset date of May 11,
2011, due to bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder, and anxiety. Tr. 108-113, 134, 137, 174-175,
187, 206, 216, 223. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff’s application initially and on reconsideration.
Tr. 53-54, 63-69. An administrative hearing was held on December 20, 2011. Tr. 25-52. Plaintiff was
present and represented by counsel.
At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was19 years old and possessed the equivalent of a high
school education. Tr. 30, 134, 188. She had no past relevant work (“PRW”) experience. Tr. 32-33, 164,
On January 20, 2012, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
(“ADHD”), and mood disorder to be severe, but concluded they did not meet or medically equal one of
the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. Tr. 11-13. After partially
discrediting Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work except the claimant must work in a controlled
environment where she is not exposed to dust, fumes, smoke, or temperature extremes, and is limited to
work involving simple tasks and simple instructions. Tr. 14-19. With the assistance of a vocational
expert, the ALJ found Plaintiff could return to her PRW as a production assembly worker (hardware
assembler and metal furniture assembler) and hand packer. Tr. 19-20.
Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council, but said request for review was denied
on April 20, 2012. Tr. 1-3. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. ECF No. 1. This case is before the
undersigned by consent of the parties. ECF No. 5. Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case
is now ready for decision. ECF Nos. 11, 12.
The Court has reviewed the entire transcript. The complete set of facts and arguments are
presented in the parties’ briefs and the ALJ’s opinion, and are repeated here only to the extent necessary
This court’s role is to determine whether the Commissioner’s findings are supported by
substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir. 2002).
Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but it is enough that a reasonable mind would find it
adequate to support the Commissioner's decision. The ALJ's decision must be affirmed if the record
contains substantial evidence to support it. Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003).
As long as there is substantial evidence in the record that supports the Commissioner’s decision, the
court may not reverse it simply because substantial evidence exists in the record that would have
supported a contrary outcome, or because the court would have decided the case differently. Haley v.
Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). In other words, if after reviewing the record it is possible
to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the findings
of the ALJ, the decision of the ALJ must be affirmed. Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065, 1068 (8th Cir.
It is well-established that a claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden of
proving her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one year and
that prevents her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d
1211, 1217 (8th Cir.2001); see also 42 U.S.C. § § 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines
“physical or mental impairment” 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), 1382(3)(c). A plaintiff must show that his or her
disability, not simply their impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months.
The Commissioner’s regulations require him to apply a five-step sequential evaluation process
to each claim for disability benefits: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity
since filing his claim; (2) whether the claimant has a severe physical and/or mental impairment or
combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment(s) meet or equal an impairment in the listings;
(4) whether the impairment(s) prevent the claimant from doing past relevant work; and, (5) whether the
claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy given his age, education, and experience.
See 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(a)- (f)(2003). Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider
the plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience in light of his or her residual functional capacity. See
McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C .F.R. § § 404.1520, 416.920 (2003).
Of particular concern to the undersigned is the ALJ’s RFC determination. RFC is the most a
person can do despite that person’s limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). A disability claimant has
the burden of establishing his or her RFC. See Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d 731, 737 (8th Cir. 2004).
“The ALJ determines a claimant’s RFC based on all relevant evidence in the record, including medical
records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the claimant’s own descriptions of his or her
limitations.” Davidson v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 838, 844 (8th Cir. 2009); see also Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d
963, 971 (8th Cir. 2010) (ALJ is responsible for determining RFC based on all relevant evidence,
including medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and claimant’s own description
of his limitations). Limitations resulting from symptoms such as pain are also factored into the
assessment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has
held that a “claimant’s residual functional capacity is a medical question.” Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700,
704 (8th Cir. 2001). Therefore, an ALJ’s determination concerning a claimant’s RFC must be supported
by medical evidence that addresses the claimant’s ability to function in the workplace.” Lewis v.
Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2003); see also Jones, 619 F.3d at 971 (RFC finding must be
supported by some medical evidence).
In the present case, Plaintiff has been diagnosed with a variety of mental impairments, making
this case more difficult. The evaluation of a mental impairment is often more complicated than the
evaluation of a claimed physical impairment. Andler v. Chater, 100 F.3d 1389, 1393 (8th Cir. 1996).
Evidence of symptom-free periods, which may negate the finding of a physical disability, do not compel
a finding that disability based on a mental disorder has ceased. Id. Mental illness can be extremely
difficult to predict, and remissions are often of “uncertain duration and marked by the impending
possibility of relapse.” Id. Individuals suffering from mental disorders often have their lives structured
to minimize stress and help control their symptoms, indicating that they may actually be more impaired
than their symptoms indicate. Hutsell v. Massanari, 259 F.3d 707, 711 (8th Cir.2001); 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404,
Subpt. P., App. 1, § 12.00(E) (1999). This limited tolerance for stress is particularly relevant because
a claimant’s residual functional capacity is based on their ability to perform the requisite physical acts
day in and day out, in the sometimes competitive and stressful conditions in which real people work in
the real world.” McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1147 (8th Cir. 1982) (abrogated on other grounds).
Plaintiff has been diagnosed with ADHD, intermittent explosive disorder, borderline intellectual
functioning, anxiety disorder, mood disorder, and borderline personality traits. Tr. 232, 233, 234, 255,
259-277, 279-285, 380-389, 390-405, 406, 407, 419-424. The evidence makes clear that Plaintiff does
not get along well with others. She admitted to pulling a knife on another person, in defense of her sister,
for which she was criminally charged; threatening others; and writing someone a letter telling them she
wanted to kill them. In fact, as recently as September 2011, Plaintiff had been involved in a fight
because another girl stopped to speak to her boyfriend. Notations concerning anger outbursts, mood
swings, and irritability are pervasive in the record.
Likewise, records also document suicidal ideations, death wishes, and suicide attempts. Plaintiff
stated that her boyfriend had stopped her from committing suicide on a number of occasions. However,
she stated that she continues to cut herself and make suicide threats. And mental evaluations from
Perspectives Behavioral Health and Dr. Patricia Walz indicate that her global assessment of functioning
(“GAF”) scores during the relevant timer period have ranged from 45 to 55, with the most commonly
assessed scores being between 45 and 47. See Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d 533, 535 (8th Cir. 2010)
(GAF is a numerical assessment between zero and 100 that reflects a mental health examiner’s judgment
of the individual’s social, occupational, and psychological function). We note that these scores are
indicative of serious symptoms or serious impairments in social, occupational, or school functioning.
See DIAGNOSTIC AND STATISTICAL MANUAL OF MENTAL DISORDERS IV-TR 34 (4th ed. 2000). And,
while records do document some improvement in Plaintiff’s depression and anxiety with the addition
of Fluoxetine to her medication regimen, it does not appear that this medication had any impact on
Plaintiff’s other mental impairments. Her GAF scores remained low, even after the medication was
prescribed, indicating, as acknowledged by the ALJ, that her mental health treatment was not effective
in treating all of her symptoms. Accordingly, given the ALJ found only that Plaintiff could perform
work involving simple tasks and simple instructions, we believe that remand is necessary to allow the
ALJ to reevaluate Plaintiff’s ability to work in proximity to others. On remand, Plaintiff’s treating
doctors/therapists should be asked to complete mental RFC assessments containing specific questions
regarding Plaintiff’s ability to work with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public.
Accordingly, we conclude that the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence and
should be reversed and remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration pursuant to sentence
four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
DATED this 2nd day of July 2013.
HON. JAMES R. MARSCHEWSKI
CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE
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