Sadden v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on January 19, 2017. (lw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
FORT SMITH DIVISION
JEREMY D. SADDEN
Civil No. 2:15-cv-02141
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Jeremy D. Sadden (“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 application for
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title 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. 6.1 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 application for SSI benefits on February 6, 2012. (Tr. 9, 125130). Plaintiff alleges being disabled due to being illiterate, panic disorder with agoraphobia,
depression, and mild mental retardation. (Tr. 176). This application was denied initially and again
upon reconsideration. (Tr. 9). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on his
application, and this hearing request was granted. (Tr. 65).
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 August 15, 2013. (Tr. 25-48). At the administrative
hearing, Plaintiff was present and was represented by counsel, Laura McKinnon. Id. Plaintiff and
Vocational Expert (“VE”) Montie Lumpkin testified at this hearing. Id. On the date of this hearing,
Plaintiff was thirty-two (32) years old and had a ninth grade education. (Tr. 28).
On January 13, 2014, subsequent to the hearing, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision on
Plaintiff’s application. (Tr. 9-20). In this decision, The ALJ determined Plaintiff had not engaged
in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since February 6, 2012. (Tr. 11, Finding 1). The ALJ also
determined Plaintiff had severe impairments of anxiety and learning disability. (Tr. 11, Finding 2).
The ALJ then 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. 11, Finding 3)
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined his
Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). (Tr. 13-19, Finding 4). 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 to perform the full range of work at all
exertional levels but was limited to with simple, routine and repetitive tasks, interpersonal contact that
is incidental to the work performed, and supervision that is simple, direct and concrete. (Tr. 13-14).
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 19, Finding 5). The ALJ
found Plaintiff had no PRW. Id. The ALJ, however, also determined there was other work existing
in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 19, Finding 9). 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 a hand packager with approximately 1,461 such jobs in
Arkansas and 165,840 such jobs in the nation, kitchen helper with approximately 2,141 such jobs in
Arkansas and 282,181 such jobs in the nation, and machine packager with approximately 931 such
jobs in Arkansas and 44,141 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 since February 6, 2012. (Tr. 20,
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s decision. (Tr.5). See
20 C.F.R. § 404.968. The Appeals Council declined to review this unfavorable decision. (Tr. 1-4).
On July 14, 2015, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. The Parties consented to the
jurisdiction of this Court on July 22, 2015. ECF No. 6. Both Parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF
Nos. 9, 12. This case is now ready for decision.
2. Applicable Law:
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. ECF No. 9, Pg. 10-21. Specifically, Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred
(1) at Step Two and Three of the evaluation and (2) in determining Plaintiff’s RFC. Id. In response,
the Defendant argues the ALJ did not err in any of his findings. ECF No. 12. Because this Court
finds the ALJ erred in failing to properly evaluate Plaintiff’s low GAF scores and in the RFC
determination of Plaintiff, this Court will only address this issue.
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 November 10, 2010, Plaintiff had a consultative Mental Diagnostic Evaluation. (Tr. 239242). Plaintiff was diagnosed with learning disability, dependant personality disorder and a GAF
score of 50-61. (Tr. 241). On February 6, 2012, Plaintiff received a GAF score of 48 with a high in
the past year of 45. (Tr. 248). During this assessment, Plaintiff was diagnosed with panic disorder,
and depressive disorder. Id.
Dr. Patricia Walz performed a Mental Diagnostic Evaluation on April 18, 2012. (Tr. 255260). Plaintiff had a GAF score of 40-45 based on significant dependancy and learning impairment.
(Tr. 259). On November 2, 2012, Plaintiff had a GAF score of 50-60. (Tr. 297).
The ALJ had no discussion of scores and failed to even mention the scores in the decision.
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 learning disability, dependant personality disorder, panic disorder,
and depressive 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
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 19th day of January 2017.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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