Bible v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Wiedemann on July 3, 2017. (rg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CIVIL NO. 16-5118
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration 1
Plaintiff, Arlene Bible, 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, disability insurance benefits
(“DIB”), and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under the provisions of Titles II and XVI
of the Social Security Act (“Act”). 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(a)(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. § 405(g).
Plaintiff protectively filed her applications for DIB and SSI on September 30, 2013.
(ECF No. 11, pp. 18, 263, 293). In her applications, Plaintiff alleges disability due to
Raynaud’s disease, leg problems, a cyst, fainting, and headaches. (ECF No. 11, p. 267).
Plaintiff alleged an onset date of January 1, 1999, which was amended at Plaintiff’s
Nancy A. Berryhill is now the Acting Commissioner of Social Security. Pursuant to Rule
25(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Nancy A. Berryhill should be substituted for
Acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin as the defendant in this suit. No further action needs
to be taken to continue this suit by reason of the last sentence of section 205(g) of the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
administrative hearing to July 1, 2013. (ECF No. 11, pp. 18, 57-58). Plaintiff’s applications
were denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (ECF No. 11, pp. 67-124).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her denied applications,
and this hearing request was granted. (ECF No. 11, pp. 177-82). Plaintiff’s administrative
hearing was held on December 3, 2014, in Fayetteville, Arkansas (ECF No. 9, pp. 32-54).
Plaintiff appeared in person and was represented by John Williams. Id. Plaintiff and Vocational
Expert (“VE”) Sarah Moore testified at this hearing. Id. At the time of this hearing, Plaintiff
was fifty (50) years old, which is defined as a “person closely approaching advanced age”
under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(d), 416.963(d). As for her level of education, Plaintiff has earned
a GED. (ECF No. 11, p. 268).
After this hearing, on August 28, 2014, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision
denying Plaintiff’s applications for DIB and SSI. (ECF No. 11, pp. 15-29). In this decision, the
ALJ found Plaintiff continued to meet the insured status requirements of the Act through
September 30, 2014. (ECF No. 11, p. 20, Finding 1). The ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged
in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since July 1, 2013, her amended alleged onset date
(ECF No. 11, p. 20, Finding 2). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: major depressive disorder; panic disorder; alcohol dependence; personality
disorder NOS (cluster B and C traits) and a history of Raynaud’s syndrome. (ECF No. 11, p.
20-21, Finding 3). Despite being severe, the ALJ determined these impairments did not meet
or medically equal the requirements of any of the Listings of Impairments in Appendix 1 to
Subpart P of Part 404 (“Listings”). (ECF No. 11, pp. 21-23, Finding 4).
The ALJ then considered Plaintiff’s Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). (ECF No.
11, pp. 23-28, 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 to perform:
a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional
limitations: [Plaintiff] must avoid all exposure to extreme cold; [Plaintiff] can
work where interpersonal contact is routine but superficial, where the
complexity of tasks is learned by experience and where there may be several
variables; [Plaintiff] can use judgment within limits; and [Plaintiff] can work
where the supervision required is little for the routine, but detailed for nonroutine.
Id. The ALJ then determined Plaintiff was able to perform her Past Relevant Work (“PRW”)
as a Cashier II. (ECF No. 11, pp. 28-29, Finding 6). The ALJ therefore determined Plaintiff
had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from July 1, 2013, Plaintiff’s amended
alleged onset date, through January 23, 2015, the date of the ALJ’s decision. (ECF No. 11, p.
29, Finding 7).
Thereafter, on February 18, 2015, Plaintiff requested a review by the Appeals Council
(ECF. No. 11, pp. 13-14). The Appeals Council denied this request on March 25, 2016. (ECF
No. 11, pp. 5-11). On May 27, 2016, Plaintiff filed the present appeal with this Court. (ECF
No. 1). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on June 23, 2016. (ECF No. 7).
This case is now ready for decision.
This Court’s role is to determine whether substantial evidence supports the
Commissioner’s findings. Vossen v. Astrue, 612 F.3d 1011, 1015 (8th Cir. 2010). 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. Teague v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 611, 614 (8th
Cir. 2011). We must affirm the ALJ’s decision if the record contains substantial evidence to
support it. Blackburn v. Colvin, 761 F.3d 853, 858 (8th Cir. 2014). 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.
Miller v. Colvin, 784 F.3d 472, 477 (8th Cir. 2015). 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, we must affirm the ALJ’s decision. Id.
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), 1382c(a)(3)(D). A
Plaintiff must show that her disability, not simply her impairment, has lasted for at least twelve
The Commissioner’s regulations require her 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 her 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)(4),
416.920(a)(4). Only if she reaches the final stage does the fact finder consider Plaintiff’s age,
education, and work experience in light of his residual functional capacity. See McCoy v.
Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982), abrogated on other grounds by Higgins v.
Apfel, 222 F.3d 504, 505 (8th Cir. 2000); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).
Plaintiff raises a single issue on appeal, that the ALJ failed to properly consider
Plaintiff’s longitudinal history of GAF scores in assessing her RFC. (ECF No. 12).
RFC is the most a person can do despite that person’s limitations. 20 C.F.R. ''
404.1545, 416.945. A disability claimant has the burden of establishing his or her RFC. Vossen
v. Astrue, 612 F. 3d 1011, 1016 (8th Cir. 2010). “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.” Jones v.
Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 971 (8th Cir. 2010); Davidson v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 838, 844 (8th Cir.
2009). Limitations resulting from symptoms such as pain are also factored into the assessment.
20 C.F.R. '' 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(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.” Miller
v. Colvin, 784 F.3d 472, 479 (8th Cir. 2015) (citing 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. Perks
v. Astrue, 687 F.3d 1086, 1092 (8th Cir. 2012).
A GAF score is a numerical assessment between zero and one hundred that reflects a
mental health examiner’s judgment of an individual’s social, occupational, and psychological
function. Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d 533, 535 (8th Cir. 2010); Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963,
973 (8th Cir. 2010) (“The GAF score is a subjective determination that represents ‘the
clinician’s judgment of an individual’s overall level of functioning’”) (internal citation
omitted). We have long held that, while occasionally helpful, a particular GAF score does not
warrant a finding of disability, and a failure to analyze GAF scores alone is not proper grounds
to reverse a disability determination. Jones at 973. (citing with approval cases from the United
States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit) (internal citation and quotation omitted). The Court is
cognizant of cases where the Eighth Circuit has 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 in part because the
ALJ failed to consider a 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). We return to the primary charge of this Court,
however, and 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. Miller v. Colvin, 784 F.3d 472, 477 (8th Cir. 2015). As the
Eighth Circuit has long held, we must affirm the ALJ’s decision 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. Id.
In the present case, The ALJ’s RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence
in the record as a whole, despite the ALJ’s failure to discuss Plaintiff’s specific GAF scores.
Plaintiff began treatment at Ozark Guidance on March 27, 2014, eight months after her alleged
onset date. (ECF No. 11, pp. 401-412); See Moad v. Massanari, 260 F.3d 887, 892 (8th Cir.
2001) (In assessing credibility, the Court noted that Plaintiff had not sought treatment from
any physician in the seven months prior to the administrative hearing). Plaintiff endorsed on
multiple occasions throughout her treatment that her alleged mental health impairments had
initially presented as early as the age of seven years old and persisted through her working
years. (ECF No. 11, pp. 401-405, 414, 425, 702). See Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 792-93
(8th Cir. 2005) (Continuing to work with alleged impairments and an absence of evidence of
significant deterioration in a claimant’s condition demonstrates the impairments are not
disabling in the present). She testified that she stopped working because the facility she was
working at closed and she never acquired a new job. (ECF No. 11, p. 58); See Goff, at 792-93
(“Courts have found it relevant to credibility when a claimant leaves work for reasons other
than her medical condition”). The Court also notes that Plaintiff did not allege any mental
health impairments in her disability applications. See Dunahoo v. Apfel, 241 F.3d 1033, 1039
(8th Cir. 2001) (The fact that the claimant did not allege depression on the benefits application
is significant, even if evidence of depression was later developed). Plaintiff testified as follows:
How often do you go to Ozark Guidance Center?
It’s down to about once a month.
Okay. What have you been diagnosed with?
I don’t have a diagnosis yet, she didn’t diagnosis me much. I went and
saw the doctor and I got some anti-depressants and anxiety pills.
Well, they’ve told you that you have depression, is that right?
And post traumatic stress disorder?
No, the words, those never came out.
I’m assuming that’s what it has to be.
Id. Her testimony demonstrates that she did not know what mental impairments her treatment
providers had diagnosed her with at the time of her hearing despite all of her treatment, save a
single appointment in January of 2015, occurring between March 27, 2014, and Plaintiff’s
administrative hearing on December 3, 2014. (ECF No. 11, p. 61).
Plaintiff first sought treatment at Ozark Guidance on March 27, 2014. (ECF No. 11,
pp. 401-412). Her primary Axis I diagnosis was posttraumatic stress disorder. (ECF No. 11, p.
408). She also had a secondary Axis I diagnosis, which was alcohol abuse, continuous, and a
tertiary Axis I diagnosis of depressive disorder not otherwise specified. Id. On Axis II, Plaintiff
was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Id. On Axis III, Plaintiff was diagnosed
with Raynaud’s syndrome. Id. On Axis IV, the examiner identified Plaintiff had problems
related to her primary support group and her social environment as well as occupational and
economic problems. Id. On Axis V, Plaintiff was assigned a GAF score of 44. Id. These
diagnoses were established in Plaintiff’s Master Treatment Plan and were carried forward
throughout all of Plaintiff’s treatment. (ECF No. 11, pp. 401-27, 697-713).
On July 28, 2014, Plaintiff’s treatment provider began noting Plaintiff was making
“some progress” and listed her prognosis as “fair.” (ECF No. 11, p. 421). Further progress was
noted on September 12, 2014. (ECF No. 11, p. 425). On October 6, 2014, her treatment
provider noted “steady progress, some reduction in anxiety observed.” (ECF No. 11, pp. 427,
707). A psychiatric examination was performed on October 7, 2014. (ECF No. 11, pp. 697700). Plaintiff’s thought process was logical, although racing, her associations were intact and
she reported no delusions or hallucinations. Id. Despite a labile and tearful affect and sad,
repressed, and anxious mood, Plaintiff exhibited normal orientation to person, place, time, and
circumstance, as well as normal memory, attention and concentration, judgment and insight,
language, and she possessed an average fund of knowledge. Id. Another psychiatric
examination on January 24, 2015, revealed only normal findings except that Plaintiff was
described as restless and fidgety and that her mood was sad and anxious. (ECF No. 11, pp.
Plaintiff attended a consultative examination with Dr. Efird on December 11, 2013,
approximately three months prior to receiving services at Ozark Guidance. (ECF No. 11, pp.
387-90). Plaintiff denied having received inpatient or outpatient mental health services in the
past. (ECF No. 11, p. 387). Dr. Efird noted Plaintiff exhibited a sad and anxious mood and a
distressed and tearful affect. Id. a 388. Her speech was normal. Id. Her thought processes were
logical, relevant, and goal directed. Id. She was alert and oriented to person, place, and time.
Id. Dr. Efird diagnosed Plaintiff as follows:
Axis I: major depressive disorder, moderate; panic disorder, without
agoraphobia; alcohol dependence
Axis II: personality disorder NOS (cluster B and C traits)
Axis V: 50-60
Id. at 389. Dr. Efird opined Plaintiff communicated in a manner that was reasonably
intelligible, effective, and socially adequate. Id. at 390. He determined Plaintiff could perform
basic cognitive tasks required for basic work activities and maintained the mental capacity to
persist with tasks if desired and complete basic work tasks in a reasonable time frame. Id.
The ALJ’s RFC determination is consistent with both Dr. Efird’s opinion and the
substance of Plaintiff’s psychiatric evaluations and treatment notes at Ozark Guidance. The
ALJ determined Plaintiff “can work where interpersonal contact is routine but superficial,
where the complexity of tasks is learned by experience and where there may be several
variables; [she] can use judgment within limits; and [she] can work where the supervision
required is little for the routine, but detailed for non-routine.” Dr. Efird’s opinion and the
treatment notes from Ozark Guidance are substantial evidence which support the ALJ’s RFC
determination. Regardless of the analysis of any individual GAF score, as long as there is
substantial evidence in the record that supports the Commissioner’s decision, the court may
not reverse it simply because other substantial evidence exists in the record that would have
supported a contrary outcome. Miller at 477. Even if this Court independently analyzed
Plaintiff’s individual GAF scores and were able to draw an inconsistent position from the other
evidence, we must affirm the ALJ’s decision when one of those positions represents the
findings of the ALJ. Id. Based on the foregoing, this Court finds the ALJ did not commit
reversible error by failing to analyze Plaintiff’s GAF scores, and that substantial evidence in
the record as a whole supports the ALJ’s RFC determination.
Accordingly, having carefully reviewed the record, the undersigned finds substantial
evidence supporting the ALJ's decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, and thus the decision is
hereby affirmed. The undersigned further finds that the Plaintiff’s Complaint should be, and is
hereby dismissed with prejudice.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 3rd day of July, 2017.
/s/ Erin L. Wiedemann
HON. ERIN L. WIEDEMANN
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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