Greenhaw v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on February 27, 2013. (rw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
Civil No. 3:11-cv-03117
CAROLYN W. COLVIN
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Shawneika Greenhaw (“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 her
applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and
a period of disability 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. 5.1 Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues this memorandum opinion and
orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter.
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB and SSI on August 4, 2010. (Tr. 10, 110122). Plaintiff alleged she was disabled due to back pain, depression, fatigue, kidney disease,
diabetes, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. (Tr. 178, 207). Plaintiff alleged an onset date of July 1,
2010. (Tr. 207). These applications were denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 53-
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.”
59, 61-64). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her applications and this
hearing request was granted. (Tr. 65).
Plaintiff’s administrative hearing was held on May 25, 2011, in Arkansas. (Tr. 25-46).
Plaintiff was present and was represented by counsel, Greg Thurman, at this hearing. Id. Plaintiff
and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Sarah Moore, testified at this hearing. Id. At the time of this hearing,
Plaintiff was twenty-three (23) years old, which is defined as a “younger person” under 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1563(c), and had a high school education and CNA certificate. (Tr. 28).
On June 30, 2011, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s application
for DIB and SSI. (Tr. 10-19). In this decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff met the insured status
of the Act through December 31, 2014. (Tr. 12, finding 1). The ALJ also determined Plaintiff had
not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since July 1, 2010. (Tr. 12, Finding 2).
The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of polycystic kidney disease. (Tr.
12, Finding 3). The ALJ also determined Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or medically equal
the requirements of any of the Listing of Impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Regulations No.
4 (“Listings”). (Tr. 14, Finding 4).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC.
(Tr. 14-18, Finding 5). First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found her
claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained
the RFC for the full range of light work. Id.
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 18, Finding 6). The ALJ
determined Plaintiff was able to perform her PRW as a motel housekeeper. Id. The ALJ then
determined Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, at anytime through the
date of his decision. (Tr. 18, Finding 7).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s unfavorable decision.
(Tr. 5). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.968. The Appeals Council declined to review this unfavorable decision.
(Tr. 1-3). On November 16, 2011, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. The Parties
consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on February 14, 2012. ECF No. 5. Both Parties have filed
appeal briefs. ECF Nos. 6,7. 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 her appeal brief, Plaintiff claims the ALJ’s disability determination is not supported by
substantial evidence in the record. ECF No. 6, Pg. 6-17. Specifically, Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred
(1) in determining Plaintiff’s RFC, (2) by failing to properly consider the opinions of Plaintiff’s
treating physician, (3) in failing to properly evaluate Plaintiff’s mental limitations, and (4) in failing
to properly evaluate Plaintiff’s severe impairments. In response, the Defendant argues the ALJ did
not err in any of his findings. ECF No. 7. Because this Court finds the ALJ erred 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).
During 2009 and 2010, Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Kevin Jackson at Crossroads Medical Clinic
for depression, bi-polar disorder, and anxiety. (Tr. 249-265). On August 10, 2010 Plaintiff
underwent an Adult Diagnostic Assessment. (Tr. 302-307). During this assessment, Plaintiff
received a GAF score of 50 which indicates severe symptoms. (Tr. 307). On August 30, 2010
Plaintiff had an Initial Psychiatric Evaluation. (Tr. 308-312). Plaintiff was diagnosed with major
depressive disorder and had a GAF score of 50. (Tr. 311)
The ALJ’s opinion made no reference to Plaintiff’s GAF scores. As discussed above, a GAF
score of 40 to 50 also indicates an individual who suffers from severe symptoms. The ALJ’s
dismissal of these scores with no analysis was error. 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
depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and depression.
Thus, considering these facts, because the ALJ did not properly evaluate Plaintiff’s low GAF
scores, this case must be reversed and remanded for further evaluation of these scores. Upon
remand, the ALJ may still find Plaintiff not disabled, however a proper and complete analysis of
Plaintiff’s GAF scores should be performed.2
Based on the foregoing, the undersigned finds that the decision of the ALJ, denying benefits
to Plaintiff, is not supported by substantial evidence and should be reversed and remanded. A
judgment incorporating these findings will be entered pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure
52 and 58.
ENTERED this 27th day of February 2013.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Based on these findings, I do not find it necessary to reach to other points of error raised by the Plaintiff in
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