Bradley v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on January 10, 2014. (src)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
HOT SPRINGS DIVISION
BRITTNEY ANN BRADLEY
Civil No. 6:12-cv-06136
CAROLYN W. COLVIN
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Brittney Ann Bradley (“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 application
for a 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. 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 her disability application on July 26, 2010. (Tr. 9). Plaintiff
alleges being disabled due to mental retardation, seizures, ADHD, epilepsy, and a speech and
language delay. (Tr. 120). Plaintiff alleges an onset date of August 20, 1996. (Tr. 9, 110). This
application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 58-59). Thereafter, Plaintiff
requested an administrative hearing on her application, and this hearing request was granted. (Tr.
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.”
This hearing was held on September 22, 2011 in Little Rock, Arkansas. (Tr. 26-57). Plaintiff
was present at this hearing and was represented by Don Pullen. Id. Plaintiff and Vocational Expert
(“VE”) Mack Welch testified at this hearing. Id. During this administrative hearing, Plaintiff
testified she was nineteen (19) years old. (Tr. 30). Such an individual is defined as a “younger
person” under 20 C.F.R. § 416.963(c) (2008). Plaintiff also testified she had graduated from high
school. (Tr. 30-31).
On December 30, 2011, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s
application for SSI. (Tr. 6-21). In this decision, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in
Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since July 26, 2010, her application date. (Tr. 11, Finding 1).
The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: epilepsy, speech language
delay, mild mental retardation, sexual abuse of a child-victim, depressive order (not otherwise
specified), and ADHD. (Tr. 11, Finding 2). The ALJ also determined, however, that 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. 11-14, Finding 3).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC.
(Tr. 14-20, Finding 4). First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaint sand found her
claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained
the following RFC:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the
claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all
exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she should not
work around hazards like heights, machinery, firearms, or motor vehicles; she is
limited to unskilled work, where interpersonal contact is incidental to the work
performed, the complexity [of] tasks is learned and performed by rote, involves few
variables, requires little independent judgment, and the supervision required is
simple, direct, and concrete; and she should not work where excellent speech is
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”) and determined Plaintiff had no
PRW. (Tr. 20, Finding 5). The ALJ then considered whether Plaintiff would be able to perform
other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 20-21, Finding 9). The VE
testified at the administrative hearing regarding this issue. Id. Considering a hypothetical individual
with Plaintiff’s RFC, age, work experience, and other limitations, the VE testified that person could
perform the requirements of representative occupations such as a motel maid (light, unskilled) with
approximately 5,000 such jobs in Arkansas, 75,000 such jobs in the region, and 400,000 such jobs
in the nation; and kitchen helper or dishwasher (medium, unskilled) with approximately 4,000 such
jobs in Arkansas, 85,000 such jobs in the region, and 400,000 such jobs in the nation. (Tr. 21).
Based upon this testimony, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform other work
existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and Plaintiff had not been under a disability
as defined in the Act from July 26, 2010 (application date) through December 30, 2011 (decision
date). (Tr. 21, Finding 10).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council’s review of the ALJ’s unfavorable
decision. (Tr. 1). The Appeals Council denied this request for review on November 6, 2012. (Tr.
1-3). On December 17, 2012, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. The Parties consented
to the jurisdiction of this Court on January 15, 2013. ECF No. 7. Both Parties have filed appeal
briefs. ECF Nos. 10-11. 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)
(2010); 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 and should be reversed and remanded. ECF No. 10 at 1-21.
Specifically, Plaintiff claims (1) the ALJ erred in failing to fully evaluate the severity of her mental
impairments and (2) the ALJ erred in his credibility assessment. Id. The Court has considered
Plaintiff’s arguments and agrees with her first claim. Because the ALJ erred by failing to fully
evaluate her Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) scores of 38 and 40, this Court finds
Plaintiff’s case must be reversed and remanded.
In social security cases, it is important for an ALJ to evaluate a claimant’s GAF score or
scores in determining whether that claimant is disabled due to a 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 GAF scores 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 (quoting 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).
In the present action, Plaintiff was treated at Community Counseling in 2009 and 2010. (Tr.
217, 220, 224, 230, 232, 339, and 416). During that time, Plaintiff was assessed as having the
following GAF scores:
July 19, 2009
GAF of 40
September 25, 2009 GAF of 40
December 1, 2009
GAF of 40
April 23, 2010
GAF of 40
May 24, 2010
GAF of 38
(Tr. 232, 339)
September 8, 2010
GAF of 38
Even though Plaintiff was assessed as having these low scores during 2009 and 2010, the ALJ briefly
referenced but did not fully consider these scores in his opinion. (Tr. 6-21). This was reversible
error. See, e.g., Conklin, 360 F. App’x. at 707. Accordingly, because the ALJ was required to
evaluate these scores and provide reasons for discounting them 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 10th day of January 2014.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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