HOLBROOK v. COLVIN
ENTRY ON JUDICIAL REVIEW - For the reasons set forth above, the Court finds that Holbrook has failed to point to any reversible error by the ALJ. Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. ***SEE ENTRY*** Signed by Judge William T. Lawrence on 8/28/2017. (JDC)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
ROSE M. HOLBROOK,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,1
) Cause No. 1:15-cv-1791-WTL-MJD
ENTRY ON JUDICIAL REVIEW
Plaintiff Rose M. Holbrook requests judicial review of the final decision of Defendant
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”), denying Holbrook’s application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”)
and Supplemental Security Insurance Benefits (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social
Security Act (“the Act”). The Court, having reviewed the record and the briefs of the parties,
now rules as follows.
Holbrook filed for DIB and SSI on November 10, 2012, alleging she became disabled on
December 16, 2011, due to back pain and anxiety. Holbrook’s application was denied initially
on February 12, 2013, and again upon reconsideration. Following the denial upon
reconsideration, Holbrook requested and received a hearing in front of an Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”). That hearing, during which Holbrook was represented by counsel, was held on
Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 25(d), Nancy A. Berryhill automatically
became the Defendant in this case when she succeeded Carolyn Colvin as the Acting
Commissioner of Social Security on January 23, 2017.
February 6, 2014, before ALJ Julia D. Gibbs. The ALJ issued her decision on July 22, 2014,
denying Holbrook’s claim. Holbrook requested review by the Appeals Council, and the Appeals
Council denied the request for review on September 10, 2015. Holbrook then filed this timely
Disability is defined as “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by
reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to
result in death, or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less
than 12 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 which 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. § 416.920(a)(4)(i).2 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. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii).
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 twelve-
The Code of Federal Regulations contains separate sections relating to DIB and SSI
that are identical in all respects relevant to this case. For the sake of simplicity, this Entry
contains citations to SSI sections only, with the exception of DIB section cites where they
provide information beyond that found in the SSI sections.
month duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled, 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)(4)(iii). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is
not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At step five, if the claimant can perform any other
work in the national economy, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).
In reviewing the ALJ’s decision, 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) (citation omitted). 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.” Dixon, 270 F.3d at 1176 (citations omitted).
ALJ GIBBS’ DECISION
ALJ Gibbs determined at step one that Holbrook had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since December 16, 2011, the alleged disability onset date. Record at 13. At step two,
the ALJ concluded that Holbrook had the severe impairments of obesity and depression, as well
as a number of non-severe impairments, including, among other impairments, a vision
impairment, osteoarthritis, back pain, panic and anxiety disorders, and major depressive disorder.
R. at 13-16. At step three, the ALJ determined that Holbrook’s impairments did not meet or
medically equal Listings 1.00, 1.02, 1.04, 2.00, 12.04, or 12.06. R at 16-17. At step four, the
ALJ determined that Holbrook had the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):
[T]he claimant has the [RFC] to perform at a medium level of exertion as defined
in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) that does not require interaction with the
general public or more than superficial or occasional interaction with coworkers.
R. at 18.
The ALJ determined that Holbrook could not perform past relevant work, but would be
capable of performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. R. at 2223. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Holbrook was not disabled as defined by the Act.
EVIDENCE OF RECORD
The ALJ’s decision in combination with Holbrook’s brief (Dkt. No. 17) aptly set forth the
medical evidence of record, which need not be recited here. Specific facts are introduced in the
discussion section below where relevant.
In her brief in support of her Complaint, Holbrook argues that the ALJ ignored or did not
evaluate evidence proving Holbrook’s disability due to her post-traumatic stress disorder, major
depressive disorder, and panic-anxiety disorder. Dkt. No. 17 at 8. She also argues that the ALJ’s
RFC determination did not accurately describe Holbrook’s impairments. Id. at 13. She further
contends that the ALJ erred in her determination that Holbrook’s impairments did not medically
equal a listing because the ALJ did not summon a medical advisor to testify regarding medical
equivalency. Id. at 11.
Holbrook argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s determination that
she was not disabled by the combined effects of her mental impairments. Dkt. No. 17 at 8.
Specificially, she contends that the ALJ “arbitrarily rejected the [RFC] evaluation by Gallahue
mental health clinic and her treating psychotherapists” and determined that “[Holbrook] had no
marked or extreme limitations under the mental Listings’ ‘B’ criteria, contrary to the [Global
Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) assessments of 50 from Gallahue mental health clinic,
indicating total disability.”3 Id. at 8 & 9, respectively.
This is simply not the case. The ALJ discussed the reasons she discounted the June 2014
assessment of a nurse practitioner at Gallahue Mental Health Services and discussed several
GAF assessments, including those GAF scores of 50 from Gallahue Mental Health Services. R.
at 20-22. She determined that the nurse practitioner’s mental RFC assessment, which does not
include a GAF score, was not created by an acceptable medical source and “consist[ed] largely
of checked-off responses without detailed medical evidence and is not consistent with the
claimant’s treatment records from Gallahue Mental Health Services, which show that the
claimant participated in group therapy and include GAFs of 50 or greater.”4 R. at 22. She
further acknowledged a GAF score of 45-50 from September 2010, which was over a year before
Holbrook’s alleged onset date, but indicated that “the claimant’s treatment records for the period
under consideration do not show that her depression persisted at a level of severity that would
Holbrook makes a nearly identical argument in another section of her brief.
Specifically, she argues that, when the ALJ assessed Holbrook as having a moderate impairment
in social functioning, ‘[t]he ALJ impermissibly failed to account for [Holbrook]’s disabling
depression and anxiety with GAF assessment in the totally disabled range.” Id. at 13 (citing R. at
17). Holbrook argues that this mistake then led to an erroneous RFC determination. The Court
addresses both arguments in this section.
The ALJ correctly found that the nurse practitioner was not an acceptable medical
source at the time of the ALJ’s decision, and did not err in refusing to credit her RFC assessment
because she cited to evidence from other treating sources supporting her decision. Cf. Voigt v.
Colvin, 781 F.3d 871, 878 (7th Cir. 2015) (ALJ did not provide adequate reasons for discounting
nurse practitioner’s assessments). For claims filed on or after March 27, 2017, nurse
practitioners are acceptable medical sources for impairments within their licensed scope of
practice. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.902 (2017).
reasonably preclude work within the [RFC] adopted.” R. at 20. She also discounted higher GAF
scores. She disagreed with a consultative examiner’s GAF score of 79 in 2013 because
“subsequent mental health treatment records, including records from Gallahue Mental Health
Services, support a greater degree of limitation during the period under consideration.” R. at 22
(citing Dkt. No. 13-10 at 1-41). She also discounted the GAF score of 63 provided by another
consultative examiner because “the record as a whole shows that the claimant’s depression more
than minimally affected her ability to function during the period under consideration.” R. at 21.
Furthermore, GAF scores “are measures of both severity of symptoms and functional
level” and “‘always reflect the worse of the two.’” Denton v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th
Cir. 2010) (quoting AM. PSYCHIATRIC ASS'N, DIAGNOSTIC & STAT. MANUAL OF MENTAL
DISORDERS 32 (rev., 4th ed. 2000)). They “do not reflect the clinician’s opinion of functional
capacity.” Denton, 596 F.3d at 425. For this reason, the ALJ is not required “to determine the
extent of an individual’s disability based entirely on [a] GAF score.” Id. (internal quotation
omitted). The ALJ considered the various GAF scores along with her review of the other
medical evidence in the record. She did not, as Holbrook says, “rely subjectively only on her
layperson’s ‘expertise’” or “act as her own medical expert, improperly basing her decision on
her independent medical determinations.” Dkt. No. 17 at 9. Rather, she examined the opinions
of the medical experts and provided an adequate explanation for the weight she gave to the
various medical opinions. See R. at 18-22. Skarbet v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 500, 503 (7th Cir.
2004) (“An ALJ may discount a treating physician’s medical opinion if it is inconsistent with the
opinion of a consulting physician . . . as long as he minimally articulates his reasons for crediting
or rejecting evidence of disability”) (internal citations and quotations omitted). Then, based on
the record before her, she determined that Holbrook was not disabled. For these reasons, the
ALJ’s disability determination and RFC were based on substantial evidence.
Holbrook argues that the ALJ erred in analyzing whether her impairments medically
equaled a listing because she did not “summon a medical advisor to testify.” Dkt. No. 17 at 11.
Specifically, she contends that the ALJ relied on her lay opinion in determining that Holbrook’s
impairments did not medically equal listings 12.04 and 12.06.
A claimant is eligible for benefits if she has a condition that meets or equals an
impairment listed in appendix 1 to 20 C.F.R. § 404. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); (d). “Each
listing has a set of criteria which must be met for an impairment to be deemed conclusively
disabling.” Kastner v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 642, 647 (7th Cir. 2012); see also 20 C.F.R. §
404.1525(c). If a claimant’s impairments meet a medical listing, she will be found disabled. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If a claimant’s impairments do not meet any medical listing, the ALJ
must consider whether the impairments equal any listing. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e);
404.1525(c)(5); 404.1526(a). “Whether a claimant’s impairment equals a listing is a medical
judgment, and an ALJ must consider an expert’s opinion on the issue.” Barnett v. Barnhart, 381
F.3d 664, 670 (7th Cir. 2004) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526(b); S.S.R. 96–6P at 3, reinstating
S.S.R. 83–19; and Farrell v. Sullivan, 878 F.2d 985, 990 (7th Cir. 1989)).
The ALJ references a number of listings, including Listings 1.00, 1.02, 1.04, 2.00, 12.04,
or 12.06. Id. at 16-17. She also makes clear that she gives “great weight” to the opinions
contained in Dr. Neville’s psychiatric assessment and Dr. J. Gange’s mental assessment. R. at
22. Both doctors found that Holbrook’s mental impairments did not meet or medically equal
Listing 12.04. See R. at 74 (Gange’s assessment that Holbrook’s impairments do not satisfy
Listing 12.04 criteria); R. at 95-96 (Neville’s assessment reaching the same conclusion). And,
although the doctors do not name Listing 12.06, they were not required to—they concluded that
Holbrook was not disabled. As a result of that determination, it was “conclusively establish[ed]”
that they had considered the question of medical equivalence and determined that Holbrook did
not meet or equal any listing. See Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004) (State
agency forms ‘conclusively establish that consideration by a physician . . . designated by the
Commissioner has been given to the question of medial equivalence at the initial and
reconsideration levels of administrative review. The ALJ may properly rely on the opinion of
these medical experts. So, substantial evidence supports a finding that [plaintiff] did not meet or
equal a listing.”) (internal citations and quotations omitted); Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 17–
Under Social Security Ruling 96–6p, which was in place at the time of the ALJ’s
decision, but has since been rescinded, an ALJ “must obtain an updated medical opinion from a
medical expert . . . [w]hen additional medical evidence is received that . . . may change the State
agency medical or psychological consultant’s finding that the impairment(s) is not equivalent in
severity to any impairment in the Listing of Impairments.” SSR 96–6p. As the Commissioner
notes, Holbrook does not point to any additional evidence that was not evaluated by Drs. Neville
and Gange that would have established that her impairments equal a listing. Accordingly, the
ALJ was not required to obtain an updated medical expert’s opinion and could properly rely on
the expert opinions provided by Drs. Neville and Gange. Consequently, the ALJ did not err by
failing to “summon a medical advisor to testify” on the issue.
For the reasons set forth above, the Court finds that Holbrook has failed to point to any
reversible error by the ALJ. Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
SO ORDERED: 8/28/17
Hon. William T. Lawrence, Judge
United States District Court
Southern District of Indiana
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