Hawkins v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on August 29, 2014. (lw)
N THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
FORT SMITH DIVISION
Civil No. 2:13-cv-02149
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Lewis Hawkins (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of Title II of the Social
Security Act (“The Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2010), seeking judicial review of a final decision of
the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying his applications for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and
XVI of the Act. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge to conduct any
and all proceedings in this case, including conducting the trial, ordering the entry of a final judgment,
and conducting all post-judgment proceedings. ECF No. 7.1 Pursuant to this authority, the Court
issues this memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter.
Plaintiff protectively filed his applications for benefits on November 29, 2010. (Tr. 155-169).
Plaintiff alleges being disabled due to major depression, mental issues and sleeping disorder. (Tr.
199). Plaintiff alleges an onset date of January 1, 2008. (Tr. 14). These applications were denied
initially and again upon reconsideration.
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an
administrative hearing on his applications, and this hearing request was granted. (Tr. 110-118).
The docket numbers for this case are referenced by the designation “ECF No. ____” The transcript pages
for this case are referenced by the designation “Tr.”
An administrative hearing was held on October 19, 2011. (Tr. 40-70). At the administrative
hearing, Plaintiff was present and was represented by attorney Fred Caddell. Id. Plaintiff, his sisterin-law Carol Hawkins, and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Montie Lumpkin, testified at this hearing. Id.
On the date of this hearing, Plaintiff was forty-five (45) years old and had a limited education. (Tr.
On November 4, 2011, subsequent to the hearing, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision
on Plaintiff’s applications. (Tr. 14-25). In this decision, the ALJ determined the Plaintiff met the
insured status of the Act through June 30, 2012. (Tr. 16, Finding 1). The ALJ also determined
Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since January 1, 2008. (Tr. 16,
The ALJ determined Plaintiff had severe impairments of major depression, polysubstance
abuse v. dependance, in questionable remission, and anti-social personality traits. (Tr. 16, Finding
The ALJ also determined Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or medically equal the
requirements of any of the Listings of Impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Regulations No.
4 (“Listings”). (Tr. 17, Finding 4).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined his
Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). (Tr. 19-24, Finding 5). First, the ALJ indicated he evaluated
Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found his claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id.
Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC for the full range of work at all exertional
levels except he was limited to work involving only simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; simple,
work-related decisions, with few, if any, work place changes; and no more than incidental contact
with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public. Id.
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 24, Finding 6). The ALJ
determined Plaintiff was unable to perform his PRW as an exterminator or a shear operator. Id. The
ALJ, however, also determined there was other work existing in significant numbers in the national
economy Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 24, Finding 10). The ALJ based his determination upon the
testimony of the VE. Id. Specifically, the VE testified that given all Plaintiff’s vocational factors,
a hypothetical individual would be able to perform the requirements of a representative occupation
such as an industrial cleaner with approximately 9,429 such jobs in Arkansas and 1,060,237 such jobs
in the nation, hand packer with approximately 1,517 such jobs in Arkansas and 163,170 such jobs in
the nation, and machine packager with approximately 966 such jobs in Arkansas and 43,430 such jobs
in the nation. Id. Based upon this finding, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not been under a
disability as defined by the Act from January 1, 2008 through the date of the decision. (Tr. 25,
On June 7, 2013, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. The Parties consented to the
jurisdiction of this Court on June 13, 2013. ECF No. 7. Both Parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF
Nos. 13, 14. This case is now ready for decision.
In reviewing this case, this Court is required to determine whether the Commissioner’s
findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
(2006); Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is less than
a preponderance of the evidence, but it is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to
support the Commissioner’s decision. See Johnson v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1145, 1147 (8th Cir. 2001).
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. See
Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). 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. See Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065,
1068 (8th Cir. 2000).
It is well-established that a claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden of
proving his or her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that lasted at least one year
and that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. See Cox v. Apfel, 160
F.3d 1203, 1206 (8th Cir. 1998); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines a
“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 his or her impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months. See
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
To determine whether the adult claimant suffers from a disability, the Commissioner uses the
familiar five-step sequential evaluation. He determines: (1) whether the claimant is presently engaged
in a “substantial gainful activity”; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment that significantly
limits the claimant’s physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities; (3) whether the
claimant has an impairment that meets or equals a presumptively disabling impairment listed in the
regulations (if so, the claimant is disabled without regard to age, education, and work experience);
(4) whether the claimant has the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform his or her past
relevant work; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform the past work, the burden shifts to the
Commissioner to prove that there are other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can
perform. See Cox, 160 F.3d at 1206; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f). The fact finder only considers
the plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience in light of his or her RFC if the final stage of this
analysis is reached. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2003).
In his appeal brief, Plaintiff claims the ALJ’s disability determination is not supported by
substantial evidence in the record and should be reversed and remanded. ECF No. 13, Pgs. 6-12.
Specifically, Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred (1) in failing to make a determination regarding Plaintiff’s
drug and alcohol abuse and (2) in his RFC determination. Id. In response, the Defendant argues the
ALJ did not err in any of his findings. ECF No. 14. Because this Court finds the ALJ erred in his
RFC determination and by failing to fully evaluate Plaintiff’s Global Assessment of Functioning
(“GAF”) scores, this Court finds Plaintiff’s case must be reversed and remanded.
Prior to Step Four of the sequential analysis in a disability determination, the ALJ is required
to determine a claimant’s RFC. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). This RFC determination must
be based on medical evidence that addresses the claimant’s ability to function in the workplace. See
Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 807 (8th Cir. 2004). The ALJ should consider “‘all the evidence
in the record’ in determining the RFC, including ‘the medical records, observations of treating
physicians and others, and an individual’s own description of his limitations.’” Stormo v. Barnhart,
377 F.3d 801, 807 (8th Cir. 2004) (quoting Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019 (8th Cir. 2002)).
In social security cases where a mental impairment is alleged, it is important for an ALJ to
evaluate a claimant’s Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score in determining whether that
claimant is disabled due to the claimed mental impairment. GAF scores range from 0 to 100. Am.
Psychiatric Ass’n, Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) 34 (4th ed.,
text rev. 2000). The Eighth Circuit has repeatedly held that GAF scores (especially those at or below
40) must be carefully evaluated when determining a claimant’s RFC. See, e.g., Conklin v. Astrue, 360
F. App’x. 704, 707 (8th Cir. 2010) (reversing and remanding an ALJ’s disability determination in part
because the ALJ failed to consider the claimant’s GAF scores of 35 and 40); Pates-Fires v. Astrue,
564 F.3d 935, 944-45 (8th Cir. 2009) (holding that the ALJ’s RFC finding was not supported by
substantial evidence in the record as a whole, in part due to the ALJ’s failure to discuss or consider
numerous GAF scores below 50).
Indeed, a GAF score at or below 40 should be carefully considered because such a low score
reflects “a major impairment in several areas such as work, family relations, judgment, or mood.”
Conklin, 360 F. App’x at 707 n.2 Am. Psychiatric Ass’n, Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) 34 (4th ed., text rev. 2000)). A GAF score of 40 to 50 also indicates a
claimant suffers from severe symptoms. Specifically, a person with that GAF score suffers from
“[s]erious 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).” Am. Psychiatric Ass’n, Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR)
34 (4th ed., text rev. 2000).
On July 27, 2010, Plaintiff was admitted to The Bridgeway Hospital for depression. (Tr. 313316). On admission his GAF score was 25. (Tr. 25). Plaintiff was discharged on July 30, 2010 with
a diagnosis of major depressive disorder, opiate dependence and marijuana abuse. Id. Plaintiff’s
GAF was 31 on discharge. Id. On November 22, 2010, Plaintiff was admitted to Hillcrest Medical
Center. (Tr. 306-309). Plaintiff was diagnosed with major depression and substance abuse. (Tr.
306). Plaintiff had an admission GAF score of 30/60. (Tr. 307). Plaintiff was discharged on
November 25, 2010 with a GAF score of 50/60. (Tr. 306). Finally, Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Patricia
Walz for a Mental Diagnostic Evaluation. (Tr. 429-435). Plaintiff had a GAF score of 45-50.
The ALJ’s opinion made reference to Plaintiff’s GAF scores but he provided no discussion
or analysis other than to say he did not find GAF scores in general as reliable. It was the ALJ’s
responsibility to properly evaluate those GAF scores and make a finding regarding their reliability as
a part of the underlying administrative proceeding. See Conklin, 360 F. App’x at 707. Indeed, it is
especially important that the ALJ address low GAF scores where, as in this case, Plaintiff has been
diagnosed with major depression disorder.
Accordingly, because the ALJ was required to evaluate these scores and provide a reason for
discounting the low GAF scores but did not do so, Plaintiff’s case must be reversed and remanded
for further development of the record on this issue. See Pates-Fires, 564 F.3d at 944-45.
Based on the foregoing, the undersigned finds that the decision of the ALJ, denying benefits
to Plaintiff, must be reversed and remanded. A judgment incorporating these findings will be entered
pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 52 and 58.
ENTERED this 29th day of August 2014.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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