Nattress v. Commissioner of Social Security
OPINION and ORDER (1) Adopting Magistrate Judge's 15 Report and Recommendation; (2) Denying Plaintiff's 11 Motion for Summary Judgment; and (3) Granting Defendant's 13 Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by District Judge Linda V. Parker. (RLou)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
SUZANNE M. NATTRESS,
Civil Case No. 16-13978
Honorable Linda V. Parker
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
OPINION AND ORDER (1) ADOPTING MAGISTRATE JUDGE’S
FEBRUARY 21, 2018 REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION [ECF NO. 15];
(2) DENYING PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
[ECF NO. 11]; AND (3) GRANTING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR
SUMMARY JUDGMENT [ECF NO. 13]
Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on November 9, 2016, challenging Defendant’s
final decision denying her application for benefits under the Social Security Act.
On the same date, the matter was referred to Magistrate Judge Stephanie Dawkins
Davis for all pretrial proceedings, including a hearing and determination of all nondispositive matters pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and/or a report and
recommendation (“R&R”) on all dispositive matters pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(b)(1)(B). (ECF No. 2.) The parties subsequently filed cross-motions for
summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 11, 13.)
On February 21, 2018, Magistrate Judge Davis issued an R&R in which she
recommends that this Court deny Plaintiff’s motion, grant Defendant’s motion, and
affirm Defendant’s decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security
Act. (ECF No. 15.) Magistrate Judge Davis first rejects Plaintiff’s argument that
the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in assigning significant weight to the
opinion of non-examining psychologist Edward Czarnecki, Ph.D. (Id. at Pg ID
540-43.) Magistrate Judge Davis next rejects Plaintiff’s claim that the ALJ erred
in discounting her lower Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) scores. (Id.
at Pg ID 546-48.)
Magistrate Judge Davis concludes by advising the parties that they may
object to and seek review of the R&R within fourteen days of service upon them.
(Id. at Pg ID 548.) She further specifically advises the parties that “[f]ailure to file
specific objections constitutes a waiver of any further right to appeal.” (Id.)
Plaintiff filed objections on March 6, 2018. (ECF No. 16.)
Standard of Review
Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g):
Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security made after a hearing to which he was a party . . . may obtain
a review of such decision by a civil action . . . The court shall have the
power to enter . . . a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without
remanding the cause for a rehearing. The findings of the
Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by
substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . .
42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (emphasis added); see also Boyes v. Sec’y of Health and
Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 511-12 (6th Cir. 1994). “Substantial evidence is
defined as ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate
to support a conclusion.’” Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 922-23 (6th Cir. 1990)
(quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). The Commissioner’s
findings are not subject to reversal because substantial evidence exists in the record
to support a different conclusion. Mullen v. Brown, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir.
1986) (citing Baker v. Kechler, 730 F.2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir. 1984)). If the
Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court
must affirm. Studaway v. Sec’y of Health and Human Servs., 815 F.2d 1074, 1076
(6th Cir. 1987).
When objections are filed to a magistrate judge’s R&R on a dispositive
matter, the Court “make[s] a de novo determination of those portions of the report
or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.”
28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The Court, however, “is not required to articulate all of the
reasons it rejects a party’s objections.” Thomas v. Halter, 131 F. Supp. 2d 942,
944 (E.D. Mich. 2001) (citations omitted). A party’s failure to file objections to
certain conclusions of the report and recommendation waives any further right to
appeal on those issues. See Smith v. Detroit Fed’n of Teachers Local 231, 829
F.2d 1370, 1373 (6th Cir. 1987). Likewise, the failure to object to certain
conclusions in the magistrate judge’s report releases the Court from its duty to
independently review those issues. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149 (1985).
The ALJ’s Decision and the R&R
An ALJ considering a disability claim is required to follow a five-step
sequential process to evaluate the claim. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The fivestep process is as follows:
At the first step, the ALJ considers whether the claimant is
currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R.
At the second step, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has
a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that
meets the duration requirement of the regulations and which
significantly limits the claimant’s ability to do basic work activities.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and (c).
At the third step, the ALJ again considers the medical severity
of the claimant’s impairment to determine whether the impairment
meets or equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant’s
impairment meets any Listing, he or she is determined to be disabled
regardless of other factors. Id.
At the fourth step, the ALJ assesses the claimant’s residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) and past relevant work to determine
whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv).
At the fifth step, the ALJ considers the claimant’s RFC, age,
education, and past work experience to see if he can do other work.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1420(a)(4)(v). If there is no such work that the
claimant can perform, the ALJ must find that he or she is disabled. Id.
If the ALJ determines that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at a step, the
ALJ makes his or her decision and does not proceed further. Id. However, if the
ALJ does not find that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at a step, the ALJ
must proceed to the next step. Id. “The burden of proof is on the claimant through
the first four steps . . . If the analysis reaches the fifth step without a finding that
the claimant is not disabled, the burden transfers to the Secretary.” Preslar v.
Sec’y of Health and Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994); see also
Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).
At the first step, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since October 23, 2013. (A.R. at 15, ECF No. 7-2 at Pg
ID 35.) The ALJ found at step two that Plaintiff has the following severe
impairments: history of pseudotumor cerebri; status-post left thoracotomy; statuspost acute respiratory failure; asthmatic bronchitis; diabetes mellitus, type II;
osteoarthritis, bilateral knees; morbid obesity; bipolar disorder; major depressive
disorder; and a history of opiate dependence. (Id.) The ALJ next analyzed
whether Plaintiff’s impairments met any of the listed impairments—specifically
Listings 11.00, 3.00, 1.02A, 11.14, 12.04, 12.09, and 12.00—and determined that
they did not. (Id. at 17-18, Pg ID 36-38.) Specifically with respect to Listings
12.04 and 12.09, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have marked restrictions
in at least two of the relevant areas (i.e., activities of daily living, maintaining
social functioning, maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, or repeated
episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration). (A.R. 16-18, Pg ID 3638.)
At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with these limitations:
unable to stand and walk more than four hours in an eight-hour
workday; sitting would be unlimited; could lift no more than 20
pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; could only stoop,
climb, balance, crouch, squat, crawl, or kneel occasionally; must
avoid all hazards such as moving machinery and unprotected heights;
would need a clean air environment free from concentrated levels of
dust, fumes, gases, chemicals, and other airborne irritants; would be
limited to simple, routine, one to three step tasks in a low stress
environment defined as no quick decision making and no quick
judgment required on the job; no interaction with the public and only
occasional interaction with supervisors or co-workers; and would be
unable to perform jobs that are fast pace, high production, or frequent
changes in task expectations or locations.
Id. at 18, Pg ID 38.) In assessing this RFC, the ALJ considered inter alia
Plaintiff’s mental health record including consultative psychology exams in August
2012 and February 2014, treatment notes from Team Mental Health beginning
May 2015, and Dr. Czarnecki’s opinion. (Id. at 20-25, Pg ID 40-44.) The ALJ
also gave “only some weight” to Plaintiff’s GAF scores, concluding that “the
objective evidence supports no more than moderate symptoms and related
limitations” and that the scores are inconsistent with Plaintiff’s reported activities
of daily living and her lack of treatment with a mental health facility until May
2015. (Id. at 25, Pg ID 45.)
The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff had no past relevant work, but that
other jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could
perform. (Id. at 25-26, Pg ID 45-46.) Specifically, the ALJ identified the jobs of
packer, sorter, and small products assembler. (Id. at 26, Pg ID 46.) The ALJ
therefore concluded that Plaintiff is not under a disability as defined by the Social
Security Act. (Id. at 27, Pg ID 47.)
As indicated, in her R&R, Magistrate Judge Davis finds no error with
respect to the ALJ’s treatment of Dr. Czarnecki’s opinion or Plaintiff’s GAF
scores. These are the only claims of error asserted by Plaintiff in this action.
Plaintiff raises two specific objections to the R&R.
In her first objection, Plaintiff asserts that Magistrate Judge Davis erred in
finding Dr. Czarnecki’s opinion consistent with the medical records post-dating his
review. Plaintiff argues that the magistrate judge reached this conclusion by
improperly relying on records prior to 2015 and by overstating Plaintiff’s
independence from other records. This Court agrees with Magistrate Judge Davis’
assessment, however, that Dr. Czarnecki’s opinion is consistent with the entire
record and that the ALJ considered and discussed the record evidence post-dating
that opinion. As the Sixth Circuit has provided, an ALJ may rely on a state agency
consultant’s opinion even where the consultant did not have the opportunity to
review the claimant’s entire record, provided there is “‘some indication that the
ALJ at least considered these facts [i.e., the unreviewed record evidence] before
giving greater weight to [the] opinion ….’” Blakely v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec’y, 581
F.3d 399, 409 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Fisk v. Astrue, 253 F. App’x 580, 585 (6th
Cir. 2007)). The Social Security Regulations require the ALJ to look not only at
the record post-dating the state agency consultant’s opinion, but the “record as a
whole.” See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(4).
As such, it was proper for the ALJ and Magistrate Judge Davis to rely on
records pre-dating Dr. Czarnecki’s opinion to assess Plaintiff’s functional
limitations. Plaintiff points out in her objections that she nevertheless testified to
greater limitations than described in some of those records. Yet, the ALJ found
Plaintiff’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of
her symptoms not entirely credible and the ALJ provided reasons for reaching that
conclusion. The ALJ also considered the record evidence post-dating Dr.
Czarnecki’s opinion and found it further supportive of his opinion. The lack of an
assessment or opinion by Plaintiff’s treating sources of greater functional
limitations and Plaintiff’s lack of treatment with a mental health facility until May
2015 additionally support the ALJ’s decision.
For these reasons, the Court concurs with Magistrate Judge Davis’
conclusion that the ALJ did not err in giving significant weight to Dr. Czarnecki’s
opinion that Plaintiff’s mental impairments result in only moderate limitations.
In her second and last objection, Plaintiff argues that her GAF scores
reflected greater limitations than found by Dr. Czarnecki and that it was error for
Magistrate Judge Davis and the ALJ to reject those scores unless supported by
substantial evidence. Plaintiff contends that her GAF scores of 45-50, 45, and 50
reflect that she “‘has serious symptoms or serious impairment of social or
occupational functioning.’” (ECF No. 16 at Pg ID 552, quoting Miller v. Comm’r
of Soc. Sec’y, 811 F.3d 825, 836 (6th Cir. 2016).) Plaintiff points out that the GAF
score of 45-50 assessed by consultative examination psychiatrist Ibrahim Youssef,
M.D., “jibes” with “[t]he opinions of the treaters” and thus “the rationale of the
non-examining evaluator for his finding of non-disability no longer exists.” (ECF
No. 16 at Pg ID 553.)
The record reflects four GAF scores for Plaintiff: a GAF score of 66
assessed by consultative psychology examiner Hugh Bray, Ph.D. in August 2012
(A.R. at 369, ECF No. 7-9 at Pg ID 396); the GAF score of 45 to 50 assessed by
Dr. Youssef in February 2014 (Id. at 425, Pg ID 452); and GAF scores of 45 and
50 assessed by Team Mental Health in May 2015. (Id. at 436, 452, Pg ID 464,
480.) As the ALJ indicated, “[a] a GAF score from 61 to 70 indicates someone
who is generally functioning pretty well and who has only mild symptoms or some
difficultly in social or occupational functioning.” (Id. at 20-21, Pg ID 40-41.) “A
GAF score of 41-50 ‘reflects the assessor’s opinion that the subject has serious
symptoms or serious impairment of social or occupational functioning.’” Keeton
v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec’y, 583 F. App’x 515, 520 n.2 (6th Cir. 2014) (emphasis
added) (quoting Kornecky v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec’y, 167 F. App’x 496, 511 (6th
The Sixth Circuit has “held that the failure to reference a GAF score is not,
standing alone, sufficient ground to reverse a disability determination.” DeBoard
v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec’y, 211 F. App’x 411, 415 (6th Cir. 2006) (citing Howard v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec’y, 276 F.3d 235, 241 (6th Cir. 2002)) GAF scores are
subjective determinations representing “‘the clinician’s judgment of the
individual’s overall level of functioning.’” Id. “[A]ccording to the [Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual’s] explanation of the GAF scale, a score may have little or
no bearing on the subject’s social and occupational functioning.” Kornecky v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec’y, 176 F. App’x 496, 511 (6th Cir. 2006). “Moreover, the
Commissioner has declined to endorse the [GAF] score for use in Social Security
and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, and has indicated that
GAF scores have no direct correlation to the severity requirements of the mental
disorders listings.” DeBoard, 211 F. App’x at 415 (6th Cir. 2006) (internal
quotation marks and citations omitted). Thus, the Sixth Circuit has affirmed
denials of disability benefits where applicants had GAF scores of 50 or lower. Id.
Here, the ALJ gave Plaintiff’s GAF scores “only some weight”, finding that
“the objective evidence supports no more than moderate symptoms and related
limitations . . ..” (A.R. at 25, ECF No. 7-2 at Pg ID 45.) Earlier in her decision,
the ALJ specifically set forth the substantial evidence on which she based this
conclusion. (Id. at 16-17, Pg ID 36-37.) Because Plaintiff’s GAF scores, standing
alone, are insufficient to undermine the ALJ’s decision and because the ALJ
properly considered the entire record to assess Plaintiff’s functioning, the Court
agrees with Magistrate Judge Davis that the ALJ’s treatment of Plaintiff’s GAF
scores is not grounds for reversal.
For these reasons, the Court rejects Plaintiff’s objections to Magistrate Judge
Davis’ February 21, 2018 R&R and adopts the recommendations in the R&R.
IT IS ORDERED that Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment (ECF No.
11) is DENIED;
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Defendant’s motion for summary
judgment (ECF No. 13) is GRANTED;
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Defendant’s decision denying Plaintiff’s
application for benefits under the Social Security Act is AFFIRMED.
s/ Linda V. Parker
LINDA V. PARKER
U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE
Dated: March 13, 2018
I hereby certify that a copy of the foregoing document was mailed to counsel of
record and/or pro se parties on this date, March 13, 2018, by electronic and/or U.S.
First Class mail.
s/ R. Loury
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