Collett v. SSA
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER; 1)Pla's 12 Motion for Summary Judgment is OVERRULED; 2)Def's 13 Motion for Summary Judgment is SUSTAINED; 3)A judgment in favor of the Def will be entered. Signed by Judge Henry R. Wilhoit, Jr on 3/24/2015. (LST)cc: COR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
Civil Action No. 13-168-HRW
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,
Plaintiff has brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S. C. §405(g) to challenge a final
decision of the Defendant denying Plaintiffs application for supplemental security income
benefits. The Court having reviewed the record in this case and the dispositive motions filed by
the parties, and being otherwise sufficiently advised, for the reasons set forth herein, finds that
the decision of the Administrative Law Judge is supported by substantial evidence and should be
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed his current application for supplemental security income benefits on
December 27, 20 I 0, alleging disability beginning on November 2, 2005, due to "post traumatic
stress disorder and bipolar" (Tr. 217). This application was denied initially and on
reconsideration. Thereafter, upon request by Plaintiff, an administrative hearing was conducted
by Administrative Law Judge Anne Shaughnessy (hereinafter "ALJ"), wherein Plaintiff,
accompanied by counsel, testified. At the hearing, William J. Kiger, a vocational expert
(hereinafter "VE"), also testified.
At the hearing, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.920, the ALJ performed the following five-
step sequential analysis in order to determine whether the Plaintiff was disabled:
Step I: If the claimant is performing substantial gainful work, he is not disabled.
Step 2: If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work, his impairment(s) must
be severe before he can be found to be disabled based upon the requirements in 20 C.F.R.
Step 3: If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work and has a severe
impairment (or impairments) that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period
of at least twelve months, and his impairments (or impairments) meets or medically
equals a listed impairment contained in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No.4, the
claimant is disabled without further inquiry.
Step 4: Ifthe claimant's impairment (or impairments) does not prevent him from doing
his past relevant work, he is not disabled.
Step 5: Even if the claimant's impairment or impairments prevent him from performing
his past relevant work, if other work exists in significant numbers in the national
economy that accommodates his residual functional capacity and vocational factors, he is
The ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled (Tr. 17-27). Plaintiff
was 47 years old at the time of the hearing decision. He has aGED. His past relevant work
experience consists of work as a dishwasher, grass cutter and shmi order cook.
At Step 1 of the sequential analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since the date of his application for benefits (Tr. 19).
At Step 2, the ALJ found Plaintiff had severe impairments of opiate dependence,
depression, and anxiety (Tr. 19). At Step 3, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment
or combination ofimpainnents that met or equaled a listed impairment (Tr. 20). The ALJ then
found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of work at all
exertionallevels but with the following nonexertionallimitations: he could understand,
remember, and carry out simple tasks with only occasional interaction with coworkers and vety
little contact with the public (Tr. 21-22). At Step 4, the ALJ found Plaintiff could not perform his
past relevant work (Tr. 26). Proceeding to the fifth and final step, the ALJ found Plaintiff could
perform the jobs identified by the vocational expert (VE) and was not disabled (Tr. 26-27, 55).
The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review and adopted the AU's decision
as the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff thereafter filed this civil action seeking a
reversal of the Commissioner's decision. Both parties have filed Motions for Summmy
Judgment [Docket Nos. 12 and 13] and this matter is ripe for decision.
Standard of Review
The essential issue on appeal to this Court is whether the ALJ's decision is supported by
substantial evidence. "Substantial evidence" is defined as "such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion;" it is based on the record as a
whole and must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight. Garner
v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6'h Cir. 1984). If the Commissioner's decision is supp01ied by
substantial evidence, the reviewing Court must affirm. Kirk v. Secretmy ofHealth and Human
Services, 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6'h Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 957 (1983). "The court may
not tty the case de novo nor resolve conflicts in evidence, nor decide questions of credibility."
Bradley v. SecretmJ' ofHealth and Human Services, 862 F.2d 1224, 1228 (6'" Cir. 1988).
Finally, this Court must defer to the Commissioner's decision "even ifthere is substantial
evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion, so long as substantial
evidence supports the conclusion reached by the ALJ." Key v. Callahan, I 09 F.3d 270, 273 (6th
PlaintifPs Contentions on Appeal
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ' s finding of no disability is erroneous because: (1) the
ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion from treating sources and (2) the hypothetical posed to the
VE was flawed.
Analysis of Contentions on Appeal
Plaintiffs first claim of error is that the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion from treating
sources. Specifically, he contends that the ALJ did not provide sufficient reasons for discounting
the opinions of treating physicians, Sheryl Hakala, M.D. and Peter Ganshirt, Psy.D.
When evaluating a doctor's opinion, an ALJ considers numerous factors, including
whether the doctor examined the claimant, whether the doctor treated the claimant, the evidence
the doctor presents to support his or her opinion, whether the doctor's opinion is consistent with
the record as a whole, and the doctor's specialty. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927( c). In order to be given
controlling weight, the opinions of a treating source on issues involving the nature and severity of
a claimant's impairments must be well supported by medically acceptable clinical and
laboratoty diagnostic techniques, and be consistent with other substantial evidence in the case
record. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2). The Court is mindful of the fact that the Commissioner is not
bound by a treating physician's opinion. Such opinions receive great weight only if they are
supported by sufficient medical data. Harris v. Heckler, 756 F.2d 431,435 (6'h Cir. 1985).
Plaintiffs main argument appears to be that the ALJ did not properly considered the
global assessment of function, or "OAF", scores of 50 and 45 suggested by Dr. Hakala, Dr.
Ganshirt and Dr. Charles Mathews, a non-treating source. This score is indicative of significant
impairment in mental capacity. However, a GAF score is not dispositive of disability. In fact,
there is no requirement that the ALJ give any weight to a GAF score. See Howard v. Comm 'r of
Soc. Sec., 276 F.3d 235,241 (6'h Cir. 2002). Moreover, in the absence of evidence that these
sources had other objective findings which would support the conclusion that Plaintiff is unable
to work, a GAF score, standing alone, does not establish impairments severe enough to render
him disabled. See Komecl~)l v. Comm 'r ofSoc. Sec., 167 Fed. Appx. 496, 511 (6'h Cir. 2006).
Dr. Hakala's records, taken as a whole, do not suppo11 an opinion that
Plaintiff had "serious" work-related limitations, particularly for any consecutive twelve-month
period. Her mental status findings were unremarkable (Tr. 682-88).0n May 4, 2012, Dr. Hakala
completed a psychiatric summary and possibly saw Plaintiff (Tr. 679-81 ). She indicated Plaintiff
reported numerous symptoms, but to the extent her notes were a summary of his prior reported
symptoms, her prior notes contradict her May 2012 summary (Tr. 679-80, 682-88). Similarly, to
the extent Dr. Hakala purported to be summarizing prior mental status findings in May 2012, her
actual prior notes contradict her May 2012 notations (Tr. 680, 682-88). Dr. Hakala fmiher noted
Plaintiff's recent and remote memory, concentration, cognition, insight, and judgment appeared
intact (Tr. 682-88). Moreover, Plaintiff reported to Dr. Hakala that he was "doing well," which
further undermines any opinion that he had disabling or additional limitations (Tr. 682, 683, 686,
Dr. Ganshirt's records also do not support his GAF score of 50 to the extent the GAF
scores purported to be an assessment of Plaintiff's ability to work (Tr. 693-701). There is no
sufficient explanation or objective medical findings to accompany it. Dr. Ganshirt's records do
not indicate Plaintiff had "serious" work-relatedlimitations, particularly for any consecutive
twelve-month period (Tr. 693-701 ). He diagnosed Plaintiff with opiate dependence and noted
Plaintiff was "craving" opiates, which indicates Plaintiff's opiate addiction played at least some
part in his presentation and Dr. Ganshirt's assessment of a GAF score of 50 (Tr. 693, 695-97,
70 I). However, a claimant's substance abuse cannot provide a basis for an award of disability
benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(J).
The OAF scores of 50 to 45 noted by Dr. Hakala, and Dr. Ganshirt are inconsistent with
the other evidence, as discussed by the ALJ (Tr. 19-26). Plaintiff's only other relevant
treatment was for his opiate dependence in September 20 I 0 and subsequent methadone
treatment, which he stopped in2012 (Tr. 636-59). The records related to his addiction treatment
do not indicate he had significant work-related limitations absent his drug abuse, and an
examiner even indicated a psychiatric consultation was not warranted (Tr. 642).
The record as a whole supports the ALJ's evaluation of the medical evidence. The Court
finds no error in this regard.
As for the hypothetical question posed to the VE, the Court finds that it accurately
portrayed the claimant's abilities and limitations, as required by Varley v. Secretary ofHealth
and Human Services, 820 F.2d 777 (6'h Cir. 1987) and its progeny. This rule is necessarily
tempered by the requirement that the ALJ incorporate only those limitations which he or she
finds to be credible. Casey v. Secret my of Health and Human Services, 987 F.2d 1230, 1235 (6'h
Based upon the credible medical evidence in the record and evaluation of claimant's daily
activities, the ALJ crafted a hypothetical which accurately contemplated the same (Tr. 554-55).
In response to the ALJ's hypothetical, the VE cited to a significant number of jobs the
hypothetical individual could perform, such as machine operator, hand packager and tender (Tr.
55). The VE's responsive testimony provided substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision
that claimant was not disabled.
The Comi finds that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the
record. Accordingly, it is HEREBY ORDERED that the Plaintiffs Motion for Summmy
Judgment be OVERRULED and the Defendant's Motion for Summmy Judgment be
SUSTAINED. A judgment in favor ofthe Defendant will be entered contemporaneously
Henry R. Wilhoit, Jr., Senior Judge
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