Carlisle v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on November 7, 2012. (tg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, April Carlisle, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking
judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(Commissioner) denying her claims for a period of disability and disability benefits (DIB) and
supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under the provisions of Titles II and XVI of the
Social Security Act (Act). 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. § 405(g).
Plaintiff protectively filed her current applications for DIB and SSI on November 20, 2008,
due to “Depression, anxiety attacks, and high blood pressure.” (Tr. 145,159). An administrative
hearing was held on February 25, 2010, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified.
By written decision dated August 27, 2010, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe: asthma;
hypertension; and major depressive disorder. (Tr. 10). However, after reviewing all of the
evidence presented, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or equal the
level of severity of any impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments found in Appendix I,
Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. (Tr. 11). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional
capacity (RFC) to:
lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She can
sit for about 6 hours during an eight-hour workday and can stand and
walk for about 6 hours during an eight-hour workday. She can
occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She is to
avoid concentrated exposure to dusts, fumes, gases, odors, and poor
ventilation. She can understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine,
and repetitive tasks. She can respond appropriately to supervisors, coworkers, and usual work situations, but is to have occasional contact with
the general public. She can perform low stress work (defined as
occasional decision-making and occasional changes in work place
(Tr. 13). With the help of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform
work as a housekeeper; small product assembler, and inspector/tester. (Tr. 17).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on October 27, 2011. (Tr. 1-4). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action.
(Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 5).
Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 9, 10).
The Court has reviewed the entire transcript. The complete set of facts and arguments
are presented in the parties’ briefs, 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. 2000).
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)(D). A Plaintiff must show that her disability, not simply her 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 had engaged in substantial
gainful activity since filing her claim; (2) whether the claimant had a severe physical and/or
mental impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment(s) met or equaled
an impairment in the listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevented the claimant from doing
past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant was able to perform other work in the national
economy given her age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. §416.920. Only if the final
stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience
in light of her residual functional capacity (RFC). See McCoy v. Schneider, 683 F.2d 1138,
1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §416.920.
Plaintiff claims that the ALJ committed reversible error by ignoring or choosing to
disregard Dr. Terry L. Efird’s diagnosis of chronic, severe PSTD, and a GAF indicating serious
On April 2, 2009, Dr. Efird conducted a Mental Diagnostic Evaluation of Plaintiff. (Tr.
271-274). In his report, Dr. Efird reported that Plaintiff denied taking psychiatric medications
at that time, although she reported having been prescribed Zoloft. (Tr. 272). She reported that
she was unable to afford medication. (Tr. 272). Dr. Efird further reported that Plaintiff’s ability
to perform basic self-care tasks satisfactorily was endorsed and that Plaintiff could primarily
perform household chores adequately. (Tr. 272). Dr. Efird further reported that Plaintiff’s last
full time job was for a janitorial service about 1.5 years previously, and after six months on the
job, she had to resign, secondary to not having transportation. (Tr. 272). Dr. Efird believed that
the fund of general information suggested Plaintiff probably had borderline to low average
intellectual functioning. (Tr. 273). Dr. Efird diagnosed Plaintiff as follows:
major depressive disorder, recurrent, severe, with possible
psychotic features; PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder],
(Tr. 274). Dr. Efird stated that Plaintiff reported primarily being able to drive adequately.
However, he reported that difficulties with mental control most likely impaired the ability to
drive unfamiliar routes, at least to some extent. (Tr. 274). Dr. Efird also stated that Plaintiff’s
ability to shop independently was denied; the ability to handle personal finances satisfactorily
was endorsed; the ability to perform most activities of daily living was satisfactorily endorsed;
and that Plaintiff maintained being fairly socially isolated. (Tr. 274). Dr. Efird further found that
Plaintiff had the capacity to perform basic cognitive tasks required for basic work like activities;
her attention/concentration was probably adequate, unless distressed; Plaintiff could most likely
persist with tasks if desired, if not emotionally distressed; and that Plaintiff’s ability to complete
most tasks within an adequate time frame would also be impacted by emotional distress as well.
RFC is the most a person can do despite that person’s limitations. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(1). It is assessed using all relevant evidence in the record. Id. This includes medical
records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the claimant’s own descriptions of
her limitations. Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005); Eichelberger v.
Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004). 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). “[T]he ALJ is [also] required to set forth specifically a claimant’s
limitations and to determine how those limitations affect his RFC.” Id.
In his decision, the ALJ gave controlling weight to the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating
physicians, who found Plaintiff to have hypertension. (Tr. 16). He also found that Plaintiff’s
asthma appeared to be well controlled with medication. (Tr. 16). The ALJ noted that all mental
health professionals, whether treating or not, assessed Plaintiff with some type of depressive
disorder, but that there was disagreement as to the type and extent of the disorder. (Tr. 16). The
ALJ stated that he carefully considered all opinions submitted in conjunction with the subjective
complaints of Plaintiff and found persuasive the opinion rendered by Dr. Efird. (Tr. 16). He
found Dr. Efird’s opinion was based upon both a review of records and upon an examination of
the claimant, and found Plaintiff had major depressive disorder. (Tr. 16).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to mention Dr. Efird’s diagnosis of severe PTSD or
that Plaintiff’s GAF was 42-52, which indicated serious symptoms. The ALJ stated that he
considered all of the mental health professionals’ opinions, and all of them diagnosed Plaintiff
with some type of depressive disorder. The fact that Dr. Efird is the only mental health
professional that gave the PTSD diagnosis is significant, as well as the fact that Dr. Efird’s
further findings confirm the fact that Plaintiff could function in the workplace unless perhaps,
she was distressed. The ALJ carefully considered this factor when he included in his RFC
assessment the fact that Plaintiff could perform low stress work. (Tr. 13).
The fact that the ALJ did not mention the GAF score given by Dr. Efird does not require
reversal. The ALJ gave a comprehensive analysis of the medical evidence. The fact that only
one GAF score was given in the record, coupled with the fact that the ALJ noted Plaintiff was
able to perform certain daily activities, all lead the Court to believe that the ALJ’s failure to
reference Plaintiff’s GAF score does not require reversal. See Wright v. Astrue, No. 12-1198,
2012 WL 4840766 at *1 (8th Cir. Oct. 12, 2012)(holding that given the ALJ’s comprehensive
analysis of the medical evidence, the infrequency of the GAF scores, the range of the GAF
scores, plaintiff’s conflicting activities, and the conflicting medical evidence relied upon by the
ALJ, the ALJ’s failure to reference plaintiff’s GAF scores did not require reversal). It is also
noteworthy that the ALJ’s RFC assessment limits Plaintiff to work performed that is simple,
routine, and included repetitive tasks, that Plaintiff’s interaction with others should be limited
to supervisors and co-workers, and that she should have only occasional interaction with the
general public, and be limited to low stress work. This RFC assessment takes into account all
of the impairments, both physical and mental, supported by the record.
The Court finds there is substantial evidence to support the weight and analysis given to
Dr. Efird’s opinion and to support the ALJ’s RFC assessment.
Accordingly, having carefully reviewed the record, the undersigned finds substantial
evidence supporting the ALJ’s decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, and thus the decision
should be affirmed. The undersigned further finds that the Plaintiff’s Complaint should be
dismissed with prejudice.
IT IS ORDERED this 7th day of November, 2012.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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