TORRES v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
OPINION. Signed by Chief Judge Jerome B. Simandle on 12/8/2015. (dmr)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
HONORABLE JEROME B. SIMANDLE
No. 14-6178 (JBS)
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
Lauren S. Tovinsky, Esq.
JACOBS SCHWABLE & PETRUZELLI PC
10 Melrose Avenue
Cherry Hill, NJ 08003
Attorney for Plaintiff
Paul J. Fishman
UNITED STATES ATTORNEY
By: Melissa Kay Curry
Special Assistant U.S. Attorney
Social Security Administration
Office of the General Counsel
330 Spring Garden Street
Philadelphia, PA 19123
Attorney for Defendant
SIMANDLE, Chief Judge:
Table of Contents
I. INTRODUCTION .............................................. 2
II. BACKGROUND ................................................ 4
A. Factual and Procedural History .......................... 4
B. Testimony before the ALJ ................................ 8
C. ALJ’s Decision and Affirmance by the Appeals Council ... 10
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW ....................................... 14
IV. DISCUSSION ............................................... 16
A. Legal Standard for Determination of Disability ......... 16
1. The ALJ properly considered the vocational testimony .. 17
2. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination of
Plaintiff’s RFC ........................................... 21
3. The ALJ properly evaluated and weighed the medical
evidence of record. ....................................... 28
a. The ALJ appropriately considered the GAF score reported
by Dr. Shang............................................. 28
b. The ALJ appropriately relied upon the opinions of the
agency physicians........................................ 31
CONCLUSION ............................................... 33
In this action, Plaintiff Hector Torres (hereinafter,
“Plaintiff”), a twenty-one year old primarily Spanish-speaking
male with no prior relevant work experience, seeks review of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration’s
(hereinafter, “Defendant”) denial of his application for
disability benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Plaintiff claims he is disabled from depression (and
related emotional disorders), arthritis, a learning disability,
and high blood pressure.
(See Pl.’s Br. at 1.)
On April 15,
2014, the Administrative Law Judge (hereinafter, the “ALJ”)
issued a ten-page decision denying Plaintiff Social Security
benefits from the alleged onset date of disability through the
date of his decision.
(See R. at 21-30.)
As relevant here, the
ALJ found that Plaintiff’s mental impairments, although severe,
did not sufficiently impede his daily living, social
functioning, and/or thought processes, and therefore allowed him
to perform a full range of exertional work subject only to
certain nonexertional limitations.
(See id. at 23-25.)
substantially that reason, the ALJ found Plaintiff “‘not
(Id. at 29.)
In the pending appeal, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred
on three largely related grounds.
(See generally Pl.’s Br. at
First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ found Plaintiff
able to work within the unskilled workforce, without
appropriately accounting for certain portions of the vocational
testimony and without resolving certain evidentiary
(Id. at 5-7.)
Second, Plaintiff claims that
the ALJ’s residual functional capacity (hereinafter, “RFC”)
determination failed to contain a vocationally significant
explanation of Plaintiff’s limitations, as required by Social
Security Ruling (hereinafter, “SSR”) 96-8P.
(Id. at 7-12.)
Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to sufficiently
evaluate certain medical evidence most favorable to Plaintiff.
(Id. at 12-15.)
The principal issues before the Court concern whether
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that
Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform a full range of exertional
work subject only to certain nonexertional limitations.
For the reasons explained below, the Court will affirm the
ALJ’s decision denying Plaintiff disability benefits.
A. Factual and Procedural History
On January 23, 2012, Plaintiff, an individual with no prior
history of inpatient or outpatient psychiatric care, presented
himself to CompleteCare Health Network in Vineland, New Jersey,
with symptoms “of a major depressive episode.”1
(R. at 285-87.)
As a result of this condition, Dr. Xiaozhou Shang admitted him
to a psychiatric unit within South Jersey Healthcare on January
24, 2014, and treated him for suicidal ideation, depression, and
(R. at 291-95.)
On January 31, 2012,
Dr. Shang discharged Plaintiff from the hospital, after he
responded favorably to his new medication, presented an improved
mood and affect, and an ability to engage in social activities.
Following this episode, however, Plaintiff filed an
application for Social Security disability benefits, claiming an
inability to function and/or work as of June 30, 2011.
In connection with the Social Security Administration’s
(hereinafter, the “SSA”) review of Plaintiff’s initial
application, the New Jersey Division of Disability Services
The records from Complete Care specifically indicate that
Plaintiff reported anxiety, depressed mood, fatigue/loss of
energy, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, poor concentration,
restlessness or sluggishness, sleep disturbance, thoughts of
suicide. (See R. at 285.)
conducted a telephone interview of Plaintiff on February 10,
(See R. at 183-85.)
During the interview, the examiner
identified Plaintiff as coherent, concentrated, and able to
understand the interview, but noted that he had “a lot of
trouble understanding even basic questions,” rendering it
“difficult to get information from [him] throughout the
(Id. at 184.)
As a result, the claims adjudicator requested that
Plaintiff complete a functional audit, describing, in greater
written detail, the manner in which his claimed impairments
limit his daily activities.
(See R. at 209-16.)
with this functional audit, Plaintiff identified certain
depressive behavior (crying, nervousness, and “bad” thoughts at
night) that impacts his mood and concentration, but otherwise
professed an ability to cook, shop, travel, understand written
instructions, get along with others, and perform an array of
After completing these assessments, Plaintiff sat for a
mental status/psychological examination with Dr. Lewis A.
Lazarus on April 25, 2012, followed by a physical evaluation
Plaintiff’s mother also completed a third-party audit of
Plaintiff’s functional capacity, in which she appears to echo
Plaintiff’s statements. (See R. at 201-08.) Nevertheless,
because Plaintiff’s mother completed the audit in Spanish, and
no party has provided a transcribed copy, the Court cannot
address it in any degree of detail.
with Dr. Francky Merlin on June 6, 2012.
(See R. at 300-09.)
During his psychological examination, Plaintiff acknowledged
that he suffers from periodic “crying spells, diminished selfesteem, and a markedly diminished interest,” but presented a
“cooperative demeanor,” adequate social skills, and
(Id. at 300-01.)
Dr. Lazarus, however, found
his intellectual functional capacity “limited” with a “below
average general fund of knowledge,” and assessed him a GAF score
of 51,3 on account of his generally “guarded” nature.4
During his physical evaluation, by contrast, Dr.
Merlin found Plaintiff able to sit, stand, walk, crouch, carry,
hear, and speak, and otherwise determined Plaintiff’s physical
condition to be within normal ranges in all respects.
Indeed, Dr. Merlin observed Plaintiff as having
appropriate affect and behavior, normal gait and station, full
motor strength, and normal reflexes.
(See R. at 305.)
The Global Assessment of Functioning, or GAF Scale, is a
numeric scale that mental health physicians and doctors use to
rate the occupational, psychological, and social functioning of
adults. See Rivera v. Astrue, 9 F. Supp. 3d 495, 496 n.1 (E.D.
Pa. 2014) (citation omitted). “The GAF scale, designed by the
American Psychiatric Association, ranges from 1 to 100, with a
score of 1 being the lowest and 100 being the highest.” Id.
4 In addition, Dr. Lazarus observed that Plaintiff had adequate
manner of relating and social skills, coherent and goal-directed
thought processes, and presented no evidence of hallucinations,
delusions, or paranoia. (See R. at 26, 301.)
Based in large part upon Dr. Lazarus’ assessment (along
with the remaining medical evidence), the SSA medical examiner,
Dr. Amy Abrams, found that Plaintiff’s impairment imposes a mild
limitation on his daily activities, a moderate limitation on his
social functioning and concentration, and that his intellectual
capacity largely limited him to unskilled work.
(See id. at 77-
Dr. Abrams, however, concluded that these non-exertional
limitations did not prevent him from obtaining employment within
the national economy, and the SSA therefore denied his initial
application on June 18, 2012.
(R. at 99.)
Plaintiff requested reconsideration of this initial
determination on July 26, 2012.
(See, e.g., R. at 113-15.)
so requesting, however, Plaintiff did not report any change in
his physical and/or mental limitations, nor provide any
additional medical evidence.
(See R. at 90-100.)
Plaintiff merely relied upon the same information submitted in
connection with his initial application. (Id.)
absence of any new allegations, in addition to the functional
abilities reflected by Plaintiff non-exertional limitations, the
reviewing SSA medical examiner, Dr. Pamela Foley, found the
initial determination supported by the medical and consultative
evidence, and denied Plaintiff’s request for reconsideration on
November 21, 2012. (See R. at 98-99.)
On December 3, 2012, Plaintiff requested, with counsel, a
de novo hearing before an ALJ, on the basis that his limitations
precluded him from working.
(See R. at 116-18.)
however, Plaintiff stated that he had “no additional evidence to
B. Testimony before the ALJ
On December 13, 2013, the ALJ, Kenneth Bossong, convened a
hearing, at which time Plaintiff appeared, with counsel and an
interpreter, and the ALJ received testimony from Plaintiff as
well as a vocational expert, Mary Morocco.
(See generally R. at
At the start of the hearing, Plaintiff’s counsel argued
that Plaintiff’s action amounts to “primarily a psychiatric
case,” on account of the fact that Plaintiff “suffers from
medically-determinable impairments, all of a non-exertional
(Id. at 40 (emphasis added).)
Following this opening
argument, Plaintiff testified that he resides with his mother in
Vineland, New Jersey, and that he completed schooling up through
11th grade (and has not attempted to attain a GED)
(Id. at 44-
Nevertheless, Plaintiff professed an ability to read
and write in both English and Spanish, and specifically stated
that he enjoys reading the Bible.
(R. at 27, 46, 55.)
Plaintiff, however, claimed no fluency in English, and insisted
that he cannot add, subtract, make change, and/or perform chores
around the house.
(R. at 46-47, 53.)
Beyond this, Plaintiff stated that his “agoraphobia” and
the “voices” in his head caused him to spend the majority of his
time alone in his room.
(R. at 47-53.)
acknowledged that his mental condition had vastly improved since
his hospitalization in January 2012, due to his medication and
(R. at 48-52.)
Even more, Plaintiff
testified that he enjoys eating out at restaurants, exercising
in the park, shopping for clothes with his mother, and even
spending one night out per month with his boyfriend.
(See R. at
His boyfriend, whom he described as a partner, also
visits him frequently at home.
(See R. at 56.)
The vocational expert, Mary Morocco, followed Plaintiff’s
(See generally R. at 65-76.)
As relevant here, the
ALJ asked Ms. Morocco whether any jobs existed that required
limited “facility with English,” only “simple instructions,” “no
more than occasional interaction with the public and coworkers,”
and a work setting that changed “infrequent[ly].”6
Although the record is silent on Ms. Morocco’s precise
qualifications, Plaintiff’s counsel stipulated to the adequacy
of her qualifications as a vocational expert. (See R. at 64.)
6 Given Plaintiff’s counsel representation concerning Plaintiff’s
lack of exertional limitations, the ALJ did not, however,
include any exertional limitations in the hypothetical. (See R.
testified, in turn, that the positions of agricultural packer,
buckle wire inserter, and produce weigher all fit within the
hypothetical (among other positions).7
(R. at 65-67.)
response to questioning from Plaintiff’s counsel, however, Ms.
Morocco acknowledged that an individual with an inability to
maintain something more than occasional “contact with
supervisors and coworkers” during the probationary employment
period may struggle to sustain lasting employment.
generally R. at 73-74.)
Following the hearing and at the request of Plaintiff’s
counsel, the ALJ left the evidentiary record open for an
additional four (4) months for the submission of further
documents on Plaintiff’s psychiatric treatment.
however, submitted no additional materials (see R. at 26, 40,
42-43), and failed to appear for a second psychological
examination with Dr. Lazarus in February 2014.
(See R. at 27,
As a result, the ALJ deemed the record closed.
C. ALJ’s Decision and Affirmance by the Appeals Council
In a written decision dated April 15, 2014, the ALJ
discussed, at length, Plaintiff’s statements and testimony
concerning his functional abilities and limitations, in addition
to the various consultative examiners’ findings and
Plaintiff’s counsel stipulated on the record hearing that
“other” positions fit within the hypothetical. (R. at 67.)
observations, and the testimony adduced during the hearing.
The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity (or any relevant work) since
January 17, 2012, the protective filing date of Plaintiff’s
initial application for Social Security benefits.
(See R. at
The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff suffered from
the impairments of an anxiety disorder, depression, and a
learning disorder (see R. at 23), but found that these
impairments did not meet or equal in severity any impairment
found in the Listing of Impairments, including Listing section
12.02 (“Organic Mental Disorders”), 12.04 (“Affective
Disorders”), and 12.06 (“Anxiety-Related Disorders”).
In so finding, the ALJ considered whether Plaintiff’s
exclusively mental impairments “result[ed] in at least two of
the following: marked restriction of activities of daily living;
marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; marked
difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace;
or repeated episodes of decompensation, each of [an] extended
However, because Plaintiff’s impairments
The ALJ explained that a “marked limitation means more than
moderate but less than extreme,” and that repeated episodes of
decompensation means “three episodes within 1 year, or an
average of once every 4 months, each lasting for at least 2
weeks.” (R. at 23.)
caused only “mild restriction” in daily activities, “moderate
difficulties” in social functioning, concentration, persistence,
and pace, and only one episode of decompensation, the ALJ found
that Plaintiff’s impairments did not satisfy these requirements.
(R. at 24.)
In addressing Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity, the
ALJ evaluated, among other factors, Plaintiff’s testimony and
other statements regarding his ability to engage in daily
activities, his assertions concerning restrictions and/or
limitations on his abilities, and the medical opinions rendered
by the various consultative examiners (including Dr. Shang and
Dr. Lazarus). (R. at 25-28.)
The ALJ, however, found that the
record evidence indicated that Plaintiff suffered from
impairments of a lesser “intensity, persistence, and limiting
effect” than he professed. (Id. at 26.)
In that respect, the
ALJ noted that Plaintiff showed a good response to treatment and
medication and an improved mood following his hospitalization,
testified to a range of skills (even if limited), and presented
a range of functional abilities during his examination by Dr.
(Id. at 26-27.)
In addition, the ALJ noted that the
objective medical evidence consistently reflected only mild and
moderate non-exertional limitations, and no severe physical
(See R. at 28.)
Even more critically, the ALJ recounted several
inconsistencies that adversely affected Plaintiff’s credibility.
(See R. at 27.)
Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s
testimony “regarding the severity of his symptoms” diminished
“by his admission” that his symptoms and mood improved with his
The ALJ likewise found Plaintiff’s
testimony concerning his intellectual limitations and
agoraphobia inconsistent with the testimony “that he enjoys
eating out at restaurants weekly, exercises in the park, 
shops for clothes,” and possesses a range of functional skills
(reading, writing, dressing, bathing, limited cooking, and
Finally, the ALJ described Plaintiff’s
consistent failures to appear (without explanation) for
examinations, as well as the absence of any evidence that
Plaintiff sought “ongoing treatment for his [allegedly severe]
mental health symptoms.”
(Id. at 27.)
After surveying all of this evidence, the ALJ determined
that Plaintiff possessed the residual functional capacity to
perform work at all exertional levels, but that his
nonexertional limitations required that the work activities be
limited to simple, repetitive tasks that involve simple
instructions with occasional social contact and infrequent or
gradual changes in work setting.
(See R. at 28.)
this RFC, the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, SSR 85-15, and the
consistency between the vocational expert’s testimony and the
information contained within the Dictionary of Occupational
Titles, the ALJ then determined that Plaintiff could perform
work existing in significant numbers within the national
economy, and found Plaintiff “not disabled.”
(R. at 29.)
Following the decision, Plaintiff filed a formal request
for review on May 12, 2014 (see R. at 14), and submitted “2
pages” of “contentions” concerning Plaintiff’s alleged
entitlement to Social Security benefits (but no additional
evidence). (R. at 4; see also R. at 232-33.)
Council, however, found “no reason” to review the ALJ’s decision
and, accordingly, denied Plaintiff’s request for review on
September 10, 2014, thereby rendering the ALJ’s decision the
final administration decision in this action.
(R. at 1-3.)
Plaintiff timely filed this action, which Defendant opposes.
The Court has jurisdiction to review the Defendant’s final
decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
When reviewing the denial of disability benefits, the Court
must determine whether substantial evidence supports the denial.
Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988); Johnson v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008).
requirement of substantial evidence, however, constitutes a
deferential standard of review, see Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d
501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004), and does not require “a large or [even]
considerable amount of evidence.”
552, 564 (1988).
Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S.
Rather, substantial evidence requires “more
than a mere scintilla[,]” Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427
(3d Cir. 1999), but generally less than a preponderance.
Jones, 364 F.3d at 503.
In order to facilitate the Court’s review, the ALJ must set
out a specific factual basis for each finding.
Richardson, 500 F.2d 309 (3d Cir. 1974), cert. denied, 420 U.S.
Additionally, the ALJ “must adequately explain in
the record [the] reasons for rejecting or discrediting competent
evidence,” Ogden v. Bowen, 677 F. Supp. 273, 278 (M.D. Pa. 1987)
(citing Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581 (3d Cir. 1986)), and
must review all pertinent medical and nonmedical evidence “and
explain his conciliations and rejections.”
Burnett v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 122 (3d Cir. 2000).
the ALJ need not discuss “every tidbit of evidence included in
Hur v. Barnhart, 94 F. App’x 130, 133 (3d Cir.
Rather, the ALJ must set forth sufficient findings to
satisfy the reviewing court that the ALJ arrived at a decision
through application of the proper legal standards, and upon a
complete review of the relevant factual record.
v. Schweiker, 721 F.2d 445, 447 (3d Cir. 1983).
A. Legal Standard for Determination of Disability
The SSA reviews claims of disability in accordance with the
sequential five-step process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
In step one, the SSA determines whether the claimant currently
engages in “substantial gainful activity.”
20 C.F.R. § 1520(b).
In step two, the claimant must demonstrate that the claimant
suffers from a “severe impairment.”
20 C.F.R. § 1520(c).
Impairments lacking sufficient severity render the claimant
ineligible for disability benefits.
F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999).
See Plummer v. Apfel, 186
Step three requires the
Commissioner to compare medical evidence of the claimant’s
impairment to the list of impairments presumptively severe
enough to preclude any gainful activity.
20 C.F.R. § 1520(d).
If a claimant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its
equivalent, the analysis proceeds to steps four and five.
Plummer, 186 F.3d at 428. Step four requires the ALJ to consider
whether the claimant retains the ability to perform past
20 C.F.R. § 1520(e).
If the claimant’s
impairments render the claimant unable to return to the
claimant’s prior occupation, the ALJ will consider in step five
whether claimant possesses the capability to perform other work
existing in significant numbers in the national economy, given
the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work experience.
C.F.R. § 1520(g); 20 C.F.R. 404.1560(c).
Here, Plaintiff presents three challenges to the ALJ’s
finding, and the Court shall address each in turn.
1. The ALJ properly considered the vocational testimony
In his first challenge to the ALJ’s decision, Plaintiff
argues that the ALJ ignored certain vocational testimony that
would have resulted in a finding of disability, and therefore
erred in his step 5 analysis.
(See Pl.’s Br. at 5-8.)
Defendant, by contrast, takes the position that the ALJ
appropriately relied upon the vocational testimony (among other
evidence) in finding Plaintiff capable of performing work
existing in significant numbers in the national economy.
Def.’s Opp’n at 13-14.)
For the reasons that follow, the Court
finds no reversible error in the ALJ’s consideration of the
In order to determine at step 5 whether jobs exists in the
national economy for a particular plaintiff, the Court of
Appeals generally requires that an ALJ support its determination
by citing to relevant rules, relying upon vocational testimony,
and/or by taking judicial notice of certain vocational
See Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 273 (3d Cir.
2000); Hall v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 218 F. App’x. 212, 217 (3d
When a claimant exhibits “only exertional (i.e. strength)
impairments,” the ALJ may properly rely in step five solely upon
the Medical-Vocational framework, or grids.
Nieves v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., No. 12-5590, 2013 WL 3811645, at *4 (D.N.J. July 22,
2013) (citing Sykes, 228 F.3d at 269).
Where, however, the
claimant exhibits only nonexertional limitations, as here, the
ALJ cannot simply rely on the medical-vocational guidelines to
direct a finding of not disabled at step five.
App’x at 215.
See Hall, 218 F.
Rather, the ALJ must take the testimony of a
vocational expert or rely upon other similar evidence, such as a
See Sykes, 228 F.3d at 273.
Reliance upon a
vocational expert, in turn, often centers upon one or more
hypotheticals posed by the ALJ to the vocational expert.
Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 553-54 (3d Cir. 2005).
framing these hypotheticals, the ALJ “must accurately convey”
all of the plaintiff’s “credibly established limitations.”
(emphasis in original); see also Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d
210, 218 (3d Cir. 1984) (same).
Here, in finding Plaintiff limited to work that involves no
more than occasional contact with others (co-workers,
supervisors, and the public), the ALJ relied upon the testimony
of the vocational expert, as well as the consistent vocational
information contained within the Dictionary of Occupational
(See R. at 29.)
Plaintiff argues, however, that the
ALJ’s determination ignored the vocational expert’s additional
testimony that the probationary period of most unskilled work
requires more than occasional contact, and that an inability to
sustain this limited “more than occasional” contact would render
an individual unable “to sustain employment.”9
(citing R. at 74).)
(Pl.’s Br. at 7
The Court, however, finds Plaintiff’s
challenge without merit.
In that regard, the Court notes, at the outset, that
Plaintiff cites no support for his position that a limitation to
occasional interaction with supervisors (during a probationary
period or otherwise) necessarily directs a finding of
(See Pl.’s Br. at 7-8.)
Indeed, courts routinely
find that an individual can perform unskilled work in the
national economy, despite a limitation to only occasional
interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public.
e.g., Butler v. Colvin, No. 13-7488, 2015 WL 570167 (D.N.J. Feb.
11, 2015) (finding that substantial evidence supported the
Commissioner’s decision where Plaintiff was limited to only
occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors);
Anderson v. Colvin, No. 14-94, 2015 WL 539909 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 10,
2015) (same); McCarl v. Colvin, No. 13-1803, 2015 WL 540067
Counsel for Plaintiff did not object to the ALJ’s hypothetical
at the time of the hearing, nor does Plaintiff challenge the
accuracy of the ALJ’s hypothetical in connection with the
(W.D. Pa. Feb. 10, 2015) (same); Torres v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec.,
No. 13-5439, 2015 WL 418171 (D.N.J. Jan. 30, 2015) (affirming
where the ALJ’s RFC assessment, which included only occasional
interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the public, was
consistent with the claimant’s functional limitations); Williams
v. Colvin, No. 13-5566, 2015 WL 221078 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 15, 2015)
Even more, Plaintiff overstates the overall importance of
the vocational expert’s testimony in connection with the ALJ’s
step five determination.
Indeed, the ALJ’s conclusion that
Plaintiff could transition to work that exists in significant
numbers in the national economy rested upon the testimony of the
vocational expert, the information contained in the Dictionary
of Occupational Titles (hereinafter, the “DOT”), and Plaintiff’s
(See R. at 29.)
Under the Third Circuit’s
decision in Sykes and the SSA’s acquiescence rulings, however,
the ALJ could have founded his determination solely upon the
DOT, without even considering the testimony of the vocational
expert (or that of Plaintiff).
See Buffington v. Comm’r of Soc.
Sec., No. 12-100, 2013 WL 796311, at *10 (D.N.J. Mar. 4, 2013)
(explaining that, under Sykes, an ALJ may rely upon the DOT as
vocational evidence); Edley v. Apfel, No. 99-422, 2001 WL
641749, at *7 & n.8 (D. Del. Apr. 10, 2001) (citations omitted)
(describing the DOT as a learned treatise, and noting an ALJ’s
ability to rely upon the DOT in lieu of live vocational
Against that backdrop, the Court cannot find any
error in the manner in which the ALJ evaluated the vocational
For all of these reasons, the Court rejects Plaintiff first
2. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s
determination of Plaintiff’s RFC
In his second challenge to the ALJ’s decision, Plaintiff
contends that the ALJ erred in his determination of Plaintiff’s
RFC, because he (1) allegedly failed to define the Plaintiff’s
RFC limitations using “vocationally significant language” and
because (2) he purportedly failed to consider the cumulative
impact of Plaintiff’s severe and non-severe medical impairments,
as required by SSR 96-8P.
(Pl.’s Br. at 10-11.)
however, argues that the ALJ’s RFC assessment rightly accounted
for the functional limitations supported by the record, and
otherwise conformed with the required analysis.
Opp’n at 6-11.)
For the reasons that follow, the Court finds
Nor, for the same reasons, can the Court find that the
testimony of the vocational expert contained any inconsistency
that required explanation by the ALJ in order “to make clear for
subsequent reviewers” how the ALJ reached “the ultimate finding
denying disability benefits.” (Pl.’s Br. at 7.) To the
contrary, the ALJ’s decision, which is clear and comprehensive
in its factual findings and application of law, makes plain the
bases upon which he denied Plaintiff’s application for
disability benefits. (See generally R. at 21-30.)
that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s ultimate finding
regarding Plaintiff’s RFC.
The RFC constitutes “an assessment of an individual's
ability to do sustained work-related physical and mental
activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis.”
SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996); see also 20
C.F.R. § 416.945(a).
In that way, the RFC calls for “a
function-by-function assessment based upon all of the relevant
evidence of an individual’s ability to do work-related
activities,” despite any exertional and/or nonexertional
Id. at *3-*6.
This analysis, in turn, ordinarily
involves an assessment of the individual’s ability to perform
the physical demands of work (such as sitting, standing,
walking, lifting, etc.) and the mental demands of work
(including understanding, remembering, and carrying out
instructions), in light of the “total limiting effects” of the
documented severe and nonsevere impairments.
20 C.F.R. §
Following this initial analysis, the RFC may
then “be expressed in terms of the exertional levels of work...”
SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1.
Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the residual
functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all
exertional levels” subject to the following nonexertional
limitations: Plaintiff “is limited to understanding to
understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions
where coworker and public contact is occasional, where good
facility is not required, and in a work setting where changes
are infrequent and gradually introduced.”
(R. at 25 (emphasis
Plaintiff’s challenge to the ALJ’s RFC assessment
hinges, in essence, upon his position that the phrases “facility
with English language” and “infrequently and gradually
introduced” do not amount to the “required” function-by-function
assessment of Plaintiff’s abilities, and that the ALJ’s
determination otherwise fails to provide a meaningful comparison
between the demands of work-related activities and Plaintiff’s
(Pl.’s Br. at 10-11.)
The Court, however,
finds Plaintiff’s position without merit.
Critically, “[a]lthough a function-by-function analysis is
desirable, SSR 96-8p does not require ALJs to produce ... a
detailed statement in writing.”
Bencivengo v. Comm’r of Soc.
Sec., 251 F.3d 153 (Table), 00–1995, slip op. at 4 (3d. Cir.
Dec. 19, 2000).
Indeed, in Bencivengo, the Court of Appeals for
the Third Circuit specifically rejected the notion that SSR 968p requires an ALJ “‘to make specific, written findings on
dozens of individual work function categories.’”
Flores v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., No. 13-4738, 2015 WL 4064669, at
*6 (D.N.J. July 1, 2015) (citing Bencivengo, slip op. at 4).
Rather, the ALJ must “‘articulate how the evidence in the record
supports the RFC determination, discuss the claimant's ability
to perform sustained work-related activities, and explain the
resolution of any inconsistencies in the record.’”
Bencivengo, slip op. at 4-5); see also Long v. Astrue, No. 102828, 2011 WL 721518, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 23, 2011) (relying
upon Bencivengo for the same premise).
In other words, in order
to discharge the ALJ’s evaluative obligation, the ALJ must
consider all the relevant evidence, and must render an RFC
finding “with ‘a clear and satisfactory explication’” of the
substantial bases upon which it rests.11
Santiago v. Barnhart,
367 F. Supp. 2d 728, 733 (E.D. Pa. 2005) (citing Fargnoli v.
Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 41 (3d Cir. 2001) (citation omitted)).
The ALJ’s RFC determination in this instance plainly
satisfies this standard.12
Indeed, in assessing Plaintiff’s RFC,
For that reason, courts routinely affirm ALJ decisions without
a written function-by-function analysis, where the ALJ’s RFC
determination rests upon substantial evidence. See, e.g., See
Garrett v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 274 F. App’x 159 (3d Cir. 2008)
(finding no failure in failing to perform a function-by-function
analysis, where the ultimate RFC determination rested upon
substantial evidence); Salles v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 229 F.
App’x 140 (3d Cir. 2007); White v. Astrue, No. 10-1233, 2012 WL
1555399, at *9-*10 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 24, 2012), adopted by, 2012 WL
1555435 (E.D. Pa. May 3, 2012); Long, 2011 WL 721518, at *2;
Adams v. Barnhart, No. 02–2365, 2004 WL 632704, at *2 (E.D. Pa.
Jan. 29, 2004); Gaul v. Barnhart, No. 07–351, 2008 WL 4082265,
at *6–7 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 25, 2008).
12 The Court rejects, at the outset, Plaintiff’s position that
the ALJ’s RFC decision must be reversed, because his analysis
failed to mention insomnia or lumbago (or, lower back pain).
(See Pl.’s Br. at 11 (citing R. at 285).) Critically, in
evaluating Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ needed only to consider the
the ALJ thoroughly discussed Plaintiff’s limited medical
history, his self-reported limitations and abilities, his
hearing testimony, the medical opinions of the consultative
examiners and medical consultants, as well as the other record
The ALJ credited, in particular, Plaintiff’s
statements regarding his anxiety and depression and the records
relative to his January 2012 hospitalization.
(See R. at 25-
Nevertheless, the ALJ noted that (1) Plaintiff “showed [a]
good response to treatment with psychotropic medical and
psychotherapy,” (2) that at the time of discharge he had an
“improved mood, brighter affect,” and no delusions or suicidal
ideation, and (3) that Plaintiff provided “absolutely no other
mental health treatment” records (nor any evidence of ongoing
limitations with evidentiary support in the record. See Salles
v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 229 F. App’x 140, 148 (3d Cir. 2007)
(citations omitted) (finding certain limitations properly
excluded in the ALJ’s RFC determination, based upon the lack of
evidentiary support). The record in this instance, however, is
devoid of any evidence (medical or otherwise) that Plaintiff’s
insomnia and lumbago exacerbated his impairments, nor did
Plaintiff rely upon these conditions to support his claimed
disability. Indeed, the medical evidence relevant to the
determination of Plaintiff’s eligibility for benefits
consistently documented no abnormal physical findings (backrelated or otherwise) nor insomnia. (See, e.g., R. at 300-11.)
Even more, Plaintiff’s position on the severity of his lumbago
proves plainly inconsistent with his counsel’s representation to
the ALJ that this action constitutes “primarily a psychiatric
case,” because Plaintiff suffers from limitations “all of a nonexertional variety.” (R. at 40.)
mental health treatment).13
(R. at 26-27.)
The ALJ further
explained why certain aspects of Plaintiff’s own testimony cast
doubt upon the severity of his mental impairment,14 particularly
to the extent he admitted to engaging in (and even enjoying)
activities that were inconsistent with his claimed impairment.15
(Id. at 27.)
The ALJ then noted the expert opinion evidence
that consistently reflected that Plaintiff possessed “a
generally normal range of functional abilities” as evidenced by
his reported daily activities and the results of his various
examinations, subject only to certain nonexertional limitations
related to his ability to understand simple instructions and to
The ALJ provided Plaintiff with ample opportunity to produce
all relevant medical records. The ALJ kept the hearing record
open “for more than 4 months” specifically to allow Plaintiff’s
counsel to provide recent mental health treatment records. (R.
at 26.) Plaintiff, however, provided no such records.
14 Plaintiff argues that the ALJ “misstated” Plaintiff’s
testimony “that he no longer hears voices when he takes his
medication,” and claims that this alleged error demonstrates the
impropriety of the ALJ’s RFC finding. (Pl.’s Br. at 11 (citing
R. at 27).) Nevertheless, the ALJ’s statement in this regard
plainly comports with Plaintiff’s own testimony (see R. at 5152), and even if the testimony could be interpreted differently,
Plaintiff stated that these voices occur only “[a]t night.”
(Id. at 51.) As a result, these alleged voices have no
identified impact on Plaintiff’s ability to perform work on a
regular and continuing basis during the workday.
15 Plaintiff, for example, testified that his agoraphobia
precluded him from working and caused him to spend the majority
of the time in his room. (See R. at 47, 53.) Plaintiff,
however, then acknowledged that he eats out at restaurants
weekly, exercises in the park, shops for clothes, and spends
time when he “feel[s] like it” with his boyfriend. (R. at 5556, 61-63.)
adapt to work environments (i.e., the conditions the ALJ
accounted for in assessing Plaintiff’s RFC).
(Id. at 27-28.)
Against this backdrop, the ALJ plainly reviewed all of the
relevant evidence, and provided a clear explanation of the bases
for his determination that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform
a limited range of unskilled work.
See Jones v. Barnhart, 364
F.3d 501, 505 (3d Cir. 2004); Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 41 (3d Cir.
2001); Burnett v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3d
Even more, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s
determination that the “objective medical evidence” did not
support Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, particularly given
the inconsistencies in Plaintiff’s own testimony and his failure
to produce substantiating documentation.
See Lane v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., 100 F. App’x 90, 95-96 (3d Cir. 2004) (citation
omitted) (finding that without medical evidence on behalf of a
claimant describing his or her work-related functional
limitations, the claimant “cannot establish disability under the
Social Security Act”).
For all of these reasons, the Court finds substantial
evidence supports the Commissioner’s findings regarding
Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity.
3. The ALJ properly evaluated and weighed the medical
evidence of record.
In his final challenge to the ALJ’s decision, Plaintiff
argues that the ALJ failed to adequately treat the GAF score
assigned to Plaintiff by Dr. Shang at the time of discharge from
his 7-day hospitalization, and afforded undue weight to the
opinions of the state agency examiners and physicians.
Pl.’s Br. at 12-15.)
The Commissioner, however, argues that the
ALJ “fully discussed the evidence or record,” and appropriately
relied upon all credibly-established evidence.
(Def.’s Br. at
For the reasons that follow, the Court finds no error
in the ALJ’s evaluation of the record evidence.
a. The ALJ appropriately considered the GAF score
reported by Dr. Shang
Plaintiff argues that Dr. Shang’s assignment of a GAF score
of 50 to Plaintiff supports, by itself, a finding of disability,
because it reflects serious psychiatric symptoms which generally
preclude vocational functioning at any level of exertion on a
regular and continuing basis.
(Pl.’s Br. at 12.)
Critically, the GAF score constitutes little more than a
“‘numerical summary of a clinician’s judgment of [an]
individual’s overall level of functioning,” and has no “‘direct
correlation to the severity requirements’” under the Social
Security Administration Rules.
Rivera, 9 F. Supp. 3d at 504
(citations omitted); see also Gilroy v. Astrue, 351 F. App’x
714, 715 (3d Cir. 2009).
Nevertheless, because the GAF score
remains acceptable and reliable medical evidence, the ALJ must
consider and weigh the importance of the GAF score, and must
specify the reasons, if any, for discounting it.
See Rivera, 9
F. Supp. 3d at 505 (citations omitted); see also Schaudeck v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 181 F.3d 429, 435 (3d Cir. 1999) (citation
omitted) (“[w]here competent evidence supports a claimant’s
claims, the ALJ must explicitly weigh the evidence....”).
Here, the ALJ readily acknowledged Dr. Shang’s assignment
of a GAF score of 50, and stated that such a GAF score “reflects
serious” mental symptoms.16
(R. at 26 & n.1)
ALJ noted that the record contained “absolutely no other
[consistent] mental health treatment notes,” and that despite
ample opportunity, Plaintiff failed to provide medical evidence
concerning the manner in which, if at all, his mental impairment
Because the record in this instance contains only two GAF
scores (one by Dr. Shang and the other by Dr. Lazarus), this
action differs from the more typical situation in which the ALJ
“cherry-pick[s]” high GAF scores and ignores a plethora of lower
GAF scores that may support a disability. Colon v. Barnhart,
424 F. Supp. 2d 805, 813-14 (E.D. Pa. 2006); see also West v.
Astrue, No. 09–2650, 2010 WL 1659712, at *4–6 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 26,
2010) (remanding for failure to consider an array of GAF
scores). In those paradigmatic scenarios, the GAF score rises
to greater preeminence in the overall disability determination,
because it (together with the accompanying explanation) often
constitutes the core of the plaintiff’s medical evidence. See,
e.g., Rivera, 9 F. Supp. 3d at 505-06. Here, by contrast, the
GAF constitutes only an isolated portion of the record evidence,
and as noted by the ALJ, lacks any consistent support in the
remainder of the record. (See R. at 26.)
affects his functions.17
Plaintiff then failed to appear
for a second, post-hearing psychological evaluation with Dr.
(See R at 27.)
Against this backdrop, and because of
inconsistencies in Plaintiff’s own testimony regarding the
severity of his mental symptoms, the ALJ discounted that
particular GAF score, and instead credited the ample evidence
reflecting (1) that Plaintiff’s overall mental status improved
through medication, and (2) that Plaintiff otherwise possessed
“a generally normal range of functional abilities.”
(R. at 26-
As particularly relevant here, this evidence included the
fact that Dr. Lazarus assigned Plaintiff a GAF score of 51,
thereby placing him in the moderate rather than severe mental
symptomatology category (see R. at 26, 301),18 and Plaintiff’s
testimony regarding his independence and his admissions
This deficiency alone proves fatal to Plaintiff’s position,
because although “[c]linicians use a GAF scale to identify an
individual’s overall level of functioning,” a low score “‘may
indicate problems that do not necessarily relate to the ability
to hold a job.’” Ramos v. Barnhart, 513 F. Supp. 2d 249, 261
(E.D. Pa. 2007) (citation omitted). For that reason, the GAF
score alone does not constitute conclusive evidence of a workrelated mental impairment. See, e.g., Hillman v. Barnhart, 48
F. App’x 26, 29 n.1 (3d Cir. 2002). Indeed, the Court of
Appeals for the Third Circuit has affirmed an ALJ’s finding of
no disability in the face of a GAF score of 35, far lower than
the GAF score assigned by Dr. Shang in this instance. See,
e.g., Wallace v. Apfel, 29 F. App’x 842, 845 (3d Cir. 2002).
18 Plaintiff’s briefing conveniently ignores the “significant”
difference between Dr. Shang’s GAF score of 50, and Dr.
Lazarus’s later-in-time GAF score of 51. Rivera, 9 F. Supp. 3d
at 504 (explaining the “significant” difference between a GAF
score of 51 and 50)
concerning his daily activities and social interactions.
id. at 27-28.)
In other words, the record depicted Plaintiff as
a person in a state of improvement, and again, he produced no
contrary record evidence.
For all of these reasons, and under the particular facts of
this action, the Court discerns no error in the ALJ’s evaluation
of Plaintiff’s GAF score by Dr. Shang.
b. The ALJ appropriately relied upon the opinions
of the agency physicians
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly afforded “great
weight” to the opinions of two state agency physicians, Dr.
Abrams and Dr. Foley, because their findings purportedly prove
“inconsistent with the findings” of the Vineland Board of
Education and “the relevant hospital records.”
(Pl.’s Br. at 13
The Court, however, finds this argument
First, Plaintiff’s reliance upon records from the Vineland
Board of Education, all of which bear dates ranging from
February 2008 to September 2008, is misplaced.
(See, e.g., R.
Critically, although these records indicate that
Plaintiff suffered from a low IQ and learning difficulties
requiring individual accommodation (see, e.g., R. at 237, 239,
251, 264, 266), all of these records pre-date Plaintiff’s
alleged onset of disability date, and therefore are of lesser
weight in determining his functional limitations during the
period relevant to the ALJ’s disability onset.19
See, e.g., 20
C.F.R. §§ 416.335, 416.501; Wilson v. Astrue, 2010 WL 1838008,
*1 (W.D. Pa. May 5, 2010) (explaining that the relevant period
for an SSI claim begins at the time of the application).
Nevertheless, the ALJ did indeed consider the education records
as evidence of Plaintiff’s learning disability.
however, nonetheless credited Plaintiff’s more-contemporaneous
testimony concerning his abilities to “read and write in both
English and Spanish,” as well as the results of the independent
(R. at 27.)
Nor does the record support Plaintiff’s contention that the
ALJ failed to appropriately evaluate the records from
Plaintiff’s hospitalization (and instead relied upon the agency
(See Pl.’s Br. at 13-14.)
Indeed, the ALJ plainly
discussed Plaintiff’s one-week hospitalization throughout his
decision, and specifically recited the bases for his
hospitalization (hallucinations, depression, and suicidal
ideations), as well as the discharge notes reflecting
As summarized above, Plaintiff protectively filed an
application for disability benefits on January 17, 2012,
alleging disability beginning June 30, 2011, over three (3)
years after the majority of the Vineland Board of Education
records. For that reason, there can be no meaningful
inconsistency between these records and the opinions of the
state agency experts.
Plaintiff’s marked improvement with medication.
at 26, 291.)
(See, e.g., R.
The ALJ then emphasized, as explained above, the
absence of any additional mental health evidence from Plaintiff,
as well as his own failure to appear for a follow-up
(See id. at 25-28.)
As a result, the
ALJ necessarily resorted to Plaintiff’s own testimony concerning
his functional abilities, as well as the consistent findings of
the agency physicians and experts (Dr. Brams and Dr. Foley being
only two of six opinions cited by and relied upon by the ALJ).
(See id. at 25-28.)
These experts, in turn, opined in relevant
part that Plaintiff could follow short and simple instructions,
keep adequate pace, and adapt to routine work-related tasks with
minimal contact with others.
(See, e.g., R. at 84-85, 96-98.)
In the absence of any relevant contrary evidence (none of
which has been cited by Plaintiff), the Court finds no error in
the ALJ’s reliance upon the opinions of the agency physicians.20
For all the reasons set forth herein, the Court finds that
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that
Plaintiff did not have a qualifying disability under the Social
Because the Court finds no error in the ALJ’s decision denying
disability benefits, the Court necessarily denies Plaintiff’s
request for a summary finding of disability. (See Pl.’s Br. at
As a result, the ALJ’s decision will be affirmed.
An accompanying Order will be entered.
December 8, 2015
s/ Jerome B. Simandle
JEROME B. SIMANDLE
Chief U.S. District Judge
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