WATSON v. COLVIN
ENTRY ON JUDICIAL REVIEW: In this case, the ALJ satisfied her obligation to articulate the reasons for her decision, and that decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Accordingly, the decision of the ALJ is AFFIRMED (see Entry for details). Signed by Judge William T. Lawrence on 5/15/2015.(SWM)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
CHRISTINA A. WATSON,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner of the Social Security
Cause No. 1:14-cv-1445-WTL-TAB
ENTRY ON JUDICIAL REVIEW
Plaintiff Christina A. Watson requests judicial review of the final decision of the Acting
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), denying her
application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act
(the “Act”). The Court now rules as follows.
Watson filed her application for DIB on December 7, 2011, alleging disability beginning
November 23, 2011, due to bipolar disorder. Watson’s application was initially denied on May
14, 2012, and again upon reconsideration on July 24, 2012. Thereafter, Watson requested a
hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The hearing was held on March 14, 2013,
via video conference before ALJ Hortensia Haaversen. Watson and her counsel appeared in
Indianapolis, Indiana, and the ALJ presided over the hearing from Falls Church, Virginia. During
the hearing, Nicholas Fidanza testified as a vocational expert. On April 4, 2013, the ALJ issued a
decision denying Watson’s application for benefits. The Appeals Council upheld the ALJ’s
decision and denied a request for review on July 1, 2014. This action for judicial review ensued.
EVIDENCE OF RECORD
Watson’s mental impairments are longstanding. In November 2011, however, her mental
impairments worsened and she sought inpatient treatment due to severe depression and suicidal
thoughts. After she was released, she began attending outpatient therapy and was prescribed
medications to control her mood and anxiety.
In March 2012, just three months after her inpatient treatment, state-agency psychologist,
Kenneth Lovko, Ph.D., reviewed Watson’s record and completed a Psychiatric Review
Technique. At that time, he found that Watson met the requirements of Listing 12.04, Affective
Disorders. Later that month, Bruce Lipetz, Psy.D., reviewed Dr. Lovko’s report and opined that
Dr. Lovko’s findings were based on a limited record. He also concluded that it “appear[ed]
unlikely that [Watson’s] condition [would] remain severe and markedly limit[ ] all work for an
entire year.” Tr. at 521. As such, he maintained that more evidence from Watson’s treating
sources was required.
As a result, in May 2012, after the record was further developed, Dr. Lovko reviewed the
additional records and found that Watson did not meeting Listing 12.04. This time, he noted and
opined as follows:
Additional information gathered from Gallahue includes last treatment notes on
4/16/12 which note [claimant’s] mood remains [sic] depressed. [Claimant]
reporting increased panic attacks, has been snapping at husband, hasn’t been getting
out and driving anywhere, has been avoiding others. No alcohol or drug use
However, neurologist notes 2/12 that [claimant’s] bipolar is active but stable.
While [claimant] did have decline in functioning in 11/11 . . . [claimant] has prior
history of being able to sustain employment and with ongoing treatment [she]
should be capable of returning to this level of functioning . . .
While [claimant’s] symptoms may present some impediment to work situations
with large numbers of people, it does seem that the [claimant] could deal with
environments that have fewer persons in them, and where stress levels are limited.
The evidence suggests that claimant can understand, remember, and carry-out
unskilled tasks without special considerations in many work environments. The
claimant can related on at least a superficial . . . ongoing basis with co-workers and
supervisors. The claimant can attend to task[s] for sufficient periods of time to
complete [the] tasks. The claimant can manage the stresses involved with unskilled
Id. at 538.
Disability is defined as “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by
reason of a medically determinable mental or physical impairment which can be expected to
result in death, or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least
twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d) (1)(A). In order to be found disabled, a claimant must
demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous
work, but any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering
her age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner employs a five-step
sequential analysis. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is
not disabled, despite her medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). At step
two, if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment (i.e., one that significantly limits her
ability to perform basic work activities), she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At step
three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant’s impairment or combination of
impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of
Impairments, 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelvemonth duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled.
step four, if the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(f). At step five, if the claimant can perform any other work in the national economy,
she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).
On review, the ALJ’s findings of fact are conclusive and must be upheld by this Court
“so long as substantial evidence supports them and no error of law occurred.” Dixon v.
Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). “Substantial evidence means such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion,” id., and this
Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Overman v.
Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008). The ALJ is required to articulate only a minimal, but
legitimate, justification for her acceptance or rejection of specific evidence of disability. Scheck
v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004). In order to be affirmed, the ALJ must articulate
her analysis of the evidence in her decision; while she “is not required to address every piece of
evidence or testimony,” she must “provide some glimpse into her reasoning . . . [and] build an
accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to her conclusion.” Id.
THE ALJ’S DECISION
At step one, the ALJ found that Watson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since November 23, 2011, her alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ concluded that Watson
suffered from the following severe impairments: Bipolar disorder and, after November 16, 2012,
right knee osteoarthritis. At step three, the ALJ determined that Watson’s severe impairments did
not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. At step four, the ALJ concluded that Watson
had the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):
[P]rior to November 16, 2012[,] the claimant had no exertional limitations.
Secondary to mental limitations, she could understand, remember and carry out
unskilled tasks without special considerations in many environments; she could
relate at least on a superficial basis and on an ongoing basis with co-workers and
supervisors; there may be some impediment to work situations with large numbers
of people, but she would be capable in environments with fewer persons where
stress levels are limited; therefore only occasional interaction with co-workers and
supervisors and no interaction with the general public; and the low-stress jobs as
defined as only occasional decision-making; she would be capable of tending to
tasks for sufficient time to complete the tasks and would be able to manage the
stresses involved with unskilled work (based on the opinion of State agency (DDS)
psychological consultant Ken Lovko, Ph.D. dated May 2, 2012 . . . ). After
November 16, 2012, in addition to the above mental limitations, the claimant has
the additional physical limitations in that she can lift and carry 20 pounds
occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; and she can stand, walk or sit for six hours
in an eight-hour workday (due to her knee impairment assessed by Dr. Haihong
Mao . . . ).
Tr. at 14. Given this RFC, and taking into account Watson’s age, education, and work
experience, the ALJ determined at step five that, prior to November 16, 2012, Watson could
perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, those being a general
laborer, a hand packager, or a mail sorter. After November 16, 2012, Watson could work as a
mail sorter, a housekeeper, or an electronics worker. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that
Watson was not disabled as defined by the Act from November 23, 2011, through the date of her
Watson advances several objections to the ALJ’s decision; each is addressed below.
A. Listing 12.04
First, Watson argues that she “met her burden of proof by offering to the ALJ substantial
psychiatric treatment and examination evidence proving that her depression and anxiety with
auditory and visual hallucinations and paranoia rendered her totally disabled.” Watson’s Br.,
Dkt. No. 14 at 7. For the most part, she relies on the first report issued by Dr. Lovko, in which he
found that Watson met Listing 12.04. Watson argues that the ALJ “arbitrarily rejected” this
evaluation. Id. The Court is not persuaded by Watson’s argument.
Indeed, the ALJ carefully considered both of Dr. Lovko’s reports. Ultimately, she gave
“less weight” to the March 2, 2012, opinion and “great weight” to the May 2, 2012, opinion. Tr.
at 18. The ALJ explained her reasoning as follows:
Dr. Lovko’s opinion was based on the claimant’s three-month treating record as of
the date of her . . . inpatient admission and records from Gallahue . . . and the
consultative examination[.] . . . However, the treatment record indicates the
claimant attended irregularly and was drinking alcohol[.] . . . Further, after Dr.
Lovko’s opinion, the record indicates the claimant’s condition improved. There was
no further alcohol use reported and her treating clinicians noted she was cooperative
with improved concentration and memory[.] . . . Her GAF score upon intake at
Aspire was 53, indicative of only moderate symptoms. Also, the claimant had not
been in treatment for months and [she] admitted [that] her lawyer suggested she
continue therapy. Moreover, she was not even sure what she needed help with.
. . . Dr. Lovko’s updated opinion is supported by the overall evidence of record.
As indicated above, the claimant’s condition improved after consistent treatment
and medicinal management. Even after she stopped taking her medications for a
few months . . . , she initiated treatment with Aspire and there is no record of
emergency room visits or inpatient hospitalizations during that time. Moreover,
the claimant has a prior history of being able to sustain employment even with a
brief hospitalization in 2006[.]
The Defendant argues that “Watson does not even acknowledge [Dr. Lovko’s] revision,
much less explain why Dr. Lovko erred in doing so.” Def.’s Resp., Dkt. No. 15 at 5. While this
was initially true, in her reply brief, Watson responded to this argument. She maintains that Dr.
Lovko did not “cite any specific additional evidence that was inconsistent with his previous
determination,” and his “‘revised’ opinion was simply speculation about the future; it did not
provide any changed analysis of her present or previous psychological impairments.” Watson’s
Reply, Dkt. No. 16 at 3-4. Thus, according to Watson, it was improper for the ALJ to credit Dr.
Lovko’s second report over his first report. The Court does not agree.
As outlined above, the ALJ cited several specific supported reasons for according greater
weight to Dr. Lovko’s second opinion. Dr. Lovko had the benefit of reviewing additional
treatment records when he issued his second report, and the medical evidence does indeed
indicate that Watson’s mental impairments were improved with therapy and medication. In short,
the Court is unable to find that the ALJ’s reliance on Dr. Lovko’s revised opinion, as opposed to
his initial opinion, requires remand.
Watson also argues that the ALJ “erroneously rejected” Watson’s low Global Assessment
of Functioning (“GAF”) scores of 41, 45, and 47. Again, the Court does not agree.
With regard to the GAF scores, the Court first notes that “nowhere do the Social Security
regulations or case law require an ALJ to determine the extent of an individual’s disability based
entirely on [her] GAF score.” Denton v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010) (citations and
quotations omitted). Moreover, the Social Security Administration has concluded that GAF
scores do “not have a direct correlation to the severity requirements in [the] mental disorders
listings.” Revised Medical Criteria for Evaluating Mental Disorders and Traumatic Brain Injury,
65 F.R. 50746-01. Simply put, the GAF scores alone do not satisfy Listing 12.04, or the
paragraph B criteria.
Additionally, the ALJ did not “erroneously reject” the GAF scores. Watson’s GAF scores
were noted in the decision and considered by the ALJ. The ALJ, however, specifically noted that
GAF scores provide “no longitudinal application,” and “[t]he Commissioner of the Social
Security Administration has declined to endorse the GAF scores for use in the Social Security
disability programs, and has indicated that such scores have no direct correlation to the severity
requirements of the mental disorders listings.” Tr. at 19. Additionally, the ALJ noted that Watson
“had not been on medication in years and her providers were altering dosages to find effective
amounts and to counter side-effects” when those GAF scores were assigned. Id. For these
reasons, the ALJ concluded that the scores did “not realistically reflect the claimant’s ongoing
functioning throughout [her] treatment history.” Id. As there are ample reasons for the ALJ’s
decision to give the GAF scores “less weight,” the Court finds that the ALJ did not “arbitrarily
reject” the scores.
Watson points to no other medical evidence showing that Listing 12.04 is met. Thus, the
Court finds that the ALJ’s consideration of Listing 12.04 was not improper under the
circumstances, and remand is not warranted.
B. Failure to Call Medical Advisor
Next, Watson argues that “[t]he ALJ’s failure to summon a medical advisor to testify
whether the claimant’s combined impairments medically equaled any Listing impairment[,] such
as 12.04 requires reversal.” Watson’s Br. at 9. The ALJ, however, did not abuse her discretion in
failing to call a psychologist to testify at the hearing.
Whether a claimant’s condition equals a listed impairment is “strictly a medical
determination,” and “the focus must be on medical evidence.” Hickman v. Apfel, 187 F.3d 683,
688 (7th Cir. 1999). However, the court gives deference to an ALJ’s decision about how much
evidence is sufficient to develop the record and what measures are needed to accomplish that
goal. See Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1098 (7th Cir. 2007); Kendrick v. Shalala, 998 F.2d
455, 458 (7th Cir. 1993). Thus, an ALJ’s decision to call a medical expert is discretionary, 20
C.F.R. § 416.927(f)(2)(iii), and an ALJ is not required to consult a medical expert if the medical
evidence in the record is adequate to render a decision on the claimant’s disability. See Skarbek
v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 500, 504 (7th Cir. 2004).
In her reply, Watson provides some support for her argument. She maintains that the
agency’s review physicians “did not review the Aspire mental health treatment through 1-23-13.
. . . Presumably if they had reviewed all of the evidence[,] they would have reasonably
determined she was totally disabled.” Watson’s Reply at 6.
The Court is unsure why the treatment notes from Aspire are particularly significant and
require additional review by a physician. Watson does not explain the documents and/or why
they would lead a medical expert to find that she is disabled. Simply put, Watson fails to
articulate in any meaningful way why a medical advisor was necessary, and the Court, without
more, will not reverse this matter simply because the ALJ did not call a psychologist to consider
“all of the evidence in the record.” See also D.N.M. ex rel. Brame v. Colvin, No. 1:13-CV00884-RLY, 2014 WL 4636390, at *7 (S.D. Ind. Sept. 16, 2014) (“His argument is: ‘Presumably
if they had reviewed all of the evidence they would have reasonably determined the claimant was
totally disabled.’ . . . That is certainly not the Court’s presumption. While it might be [the
plaintiff’s] presumption, it was definitely his burden to show that the nature of these items of
evidence, compared to the other evidence the state agency physicians reviewed, required the ALJ
to obtain a supplemental medical opinion.”) (emphasis in original).
C. Step 5 Determination
Lastly, Watson argues that the ALJ did not give “full consideration to all of [Watson’s]
documented impairments in determining that she is not disabled.” Watson’s Br. at 11. Thus,
according to Watson, the ALJ’s determination at step five was not supported by substantial
evidence. This argument, however, is premised on the idea that Watson’s impairments are
disabling and more severe than what was found by the ALJ. Again, she relies on the March 1,
2012, evaluation completed by Dr. Lovko to support her argument. As noted above, however,
Watson has failed to show that the ALJ’s decision to give “less weight” to Dr. Lovko’s first
report was erroneous or improper. Accordingly, the ALJ’s step five analysis does not warrant
In this case, the ALJ satisfied her obligation to articulate the reasons for her decision, and
that decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Accordingly, the decision of the
ALJ is AFFIRMED.
SO ORDERED: 5/15/15
Hon. William T. Lawrence, Judge
United States District Court
Southern District of Indiana
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