Mathis v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on July 24, 2014. (sh)
N THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
HOT SPRINGS DIVISION
PATRICIA ELAINE MATHIS
Civil No. 6:13-cv-06083
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Patricia Elaine Mathis (“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”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) 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. 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 applications for benefits on October 17, 2006. (Tr. 93-100).
Plaintiff alleges being disabled due to back injuries, degenerative disc disease, neck problems, arm
problems, and depression. (Tr. 124, 174, 427). Plaintiff alleges an onset date of November 10, 2004.
(Tr. 93, 98). These applications were denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 49-52).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her applications, and this hearing request
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.”
was granted. (Tr. 70-74).
An administrative hearing was held on March 19, 2009. (Tr. 22-48). On September 16, 2009,
the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision on Plaintiff’s applications. (Tr. 9-21). Plaintiff appealed
the unfavorable decision in federal district court, and the Court remanded the case on July 27, 2011.
(Tr. 446-451). Based on the district court’s order, the Appeals Council remanded the case back to
the ALJ for reconsideration of the evidence. (Tr. 461-464).
On remand, a second administrative hearing was held on November 4, 2012. (Tr. 423-445).
At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was present and was represented by attorney Sherri
McDonough. Id. Plaintiff and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Robert Cox, testified at this hearing. Id.
On the date of this hearing, Plaintiff was forty-seven (47) years old and had a high school education.
On April 23, 2013, subsequent to the hearing, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision on
Plaintiff’s applications. (Tr. 404-417). In this decision, the ALJ determined the Plaintiff met the
insured status of the Act through June 30, 2012. (Tr. 406, Finding 1). The ALJ also determined
Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since November 10, 2004. (Tr.
406, Finding 2).
The ALJ determined Plaintiff had severe impairments of disorder of the back, sprain or strain,
bulging disc, degenerative bone disease, degenerative arthritis, osteoarthritis of both knees, knee
sprain, fracture of the lateral tibial plateau, schizoaffective disorder, and depression. (Tr. 406, Finding
The ALJ also 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. 407, Finding 4).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her
Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). (Tr. 409-415, Finding 5). First, the ALJ indicated he
evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found her claimed limitations were not entirely
credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC for sedentary work with no
climbing; limited to occasional stooping, crouching, crawling, and kneeling; requiring the use of an
assistive device to ambulate to work station or to reach any part of the workplace more than ten paces
from the work station; limited to work where interpersonal contact is generally infrequent and limited
and interaction with the public is not an essential job duty; restricted to tasks that are learned by
demonstration or repetition within thirty days; performed with few variables, little judgment; and
where supervision required is simple, direct, and concrete. Id.
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 415, Finding 6). The ALJ
determined Plaintiff was unable to perform her PRW as a computer indexer, highway laborer, light
fixture assembler, and fast food work. Id. The ALJ, however, also determined there was other work
existing in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 416, Finding
10). 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 charge account clerk with
approximately 2,000 such jobs in Arkansas and 200,000 such jobs in the nation, addressing clerk with
approximately 280 such jobs in Arkansas and 96,000 such jobs in the nation, and document preparer
with approximately 220 such jobs in Arkansas and 26,000 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 from
November 10, 2004 through the date of the decision. (Tr. 417, Finding 11).
On July 22, 2013, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. The Parties consented to the
jurisdiction of this Court on July 24, 2013. ECF No. 7. Both Parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF
Nos. 9, 10. 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)
(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 and should be reversed and remanded. ECF No. 9, Pgs. 9-20.
Specifically, Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred (1) in failing to find Plaintiff met a Listing and (2) in his
RFC determination. Id. In response, the Defendant argues the ALJ did not err in any of his findings.
ECF No. 10. Because this Court finds the ALJ erred in his RFC determination and by failing to fully
evaluate Plaintiff’s Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) scores, this Court finds Plaintiff’s
case must be reversed and remanded.
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).
Between November 2007 and November 2012, Plaintiff’s numerous GAF of scores of 40.
(Tr. 261, 268, 276, 283, 295, 300, 307, 519, 522, 525, 675, 681, 685, 691, 695, 705, 712, 723, 732,
739, 746, 751, 754, 760, 768, 783, 793, 809, 813, 815, 820, 878, 892, 910, 916, 922, 925, and 931).
The ALJ’s opinion made no reference to Plaintiff’s GAF scores and provided no discussion or
analysis. 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 schizoaffective disorder and depression.
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 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 24th day of July 2014.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?