Mayes v. Colvin
ORDER GRANTING 27 Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, and DENYING 36 Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. The decision of the Administrative Law Judge is REMANDED to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with the foregoing. Signed by US District Judge Terrence W. Boyle on 3/11/2014. (Fisher, M.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner ofSocial Security,
This cause comes before the Court on cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. A
hearing was held on these matters before the undersigned on February 28, 2014, at Raleigh, North
Carolina. For the reasons discussed below, this matter is remanded to the Commissioner for further
Plaintiffbroughtthis action under42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) forreviewofthe final
decision ofthe Commissioner denying her claim for disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB)
and supplemental security income (SSI) pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB and SSI on August 18, 2010, alleging disability
beginning June 13, 2010.
Following initial denials of plaintiffs claim, an Administrative Law
Judge (ALJ) held a hearing at which plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert (VE) appeared.
After considering the claim de novo, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled. The decision of
the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs
request for review. Plaintiff then timely sought review ofthe Commissioner's decision in this Court.
Under the Social Security Act, this Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited
to determining whether the decision, as a whole, is supported by substantial evidence and whether
the Commissioner employed the correct legal standard. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Hays v. Sullivan,
907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence consists of more than a mere scintilla of
evidence, but may be less than a preponderance of evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389,
401 (1971). The Court must not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner if the
Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456.
In evaluating whether a claimant is disabled, an ALJ uses a multi-step process. First, a
claimant must not be able to work in a substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F .R. § 404.1520. Second,
a claimant must have a severe impairment that significantly limits his or her physical or mental
ability to do basic work activities. Id Third, to be found disabled, without considering a claimant's
age, education, and work experience, a claimant's impairment must be of sufficient duration and
must either meet or equal an impairment listed by the regulations. Id Fourth, in the alternative, a
claimant may be disabled if his or her impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant
work and, fifth, if the impairment prevents the claimant from doing other work. Id
After finding that plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since her
alleged onset date at step one, the ALJ determined that plaintiffs high blood pressure, seizures,
obesity, depression, and anxiety were severe impairments at step two. The ALJ then found that
plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled a listing at
step three, and that plaintiff had a residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium work with
exertional and non-exertionallimitations. At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to
perform her past relevant work, but that, based on plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and
RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could
perform. Thus, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled as of the date of his decision.
Regarding plaintiffs depression and anxiety and resulting non-exertionallimitations, the ALJ
afforded little weight to the opinion of a consultative psychological examiner, whose opinion the
ALJ determined lacked longitudinal perspective as it was given shortly after the death of plaintiffs
mother. Tr. 18. The consultative psychologist concluded that plaintiff would have difficulty
following written instructions above the 5th grade level and that she may need close supervision but
would otherwise be able to relate to co-workers and supervisors in small settings. Tr. 406. Three
months later, a non-examining state agency psychologist, whose opinion the ALJ gave significant
weight, found that plaintiffwould have moderate difficulty understanding and remembering detailed
instructions, would be moderately limited in her ability to complete a normal workday and workweek
without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms, and would be moderately limited in
interacting with the general public. Tr. 137. Four and five months later, plaintiff was still diagnosed
as having depression and anxiety with increased episodes caused by the death of her parents. Tr.
Though the ALJ dismissed the consultative examiner's findings as not longitudinally
representative, there is not substantial evidence in the record to support a finding that plaintiff no
longer would be limited as noted by the consultative examiner. Moths after the death of her mother,
plaintiffs depression and anxiety continued and plaintiff continued to be assigned Global
Assessment of Functioning (GAF) scores in the forties and fifties, reflecting serious to moderate
difficulty in social, occupational, or school functioning. AMERICAN PSYCHIATRIC ASSOCIATION,
DIAGNOSTIC AND STATISTICAL MANUAL OF MENTAL DISORDERS (4th ed. text revision). While the
ALJ was correct to note that GAF scores are subjective snapshots of a patient's condition by an
examiner, and in and of themselves lack longitudinal perspective, consistent GAF scores over time
do provide some relevant information about an examiner's opinion of a patient's longitudinal
picture. Moreover, the non-examining psychologist, whose opinion was afforded significant weight,
did not differ greatly from the consultative examiner in his opinion regarding plaintiffs nonexertionallimitations due to her depression and anxiety. Thus, the ALJ's failure to consider more
detailed and restrictive non-exertionallimitations was not supported by substantial evidence, nor
were the hypothetical questions posed to the VE at the hearing. Remand is therefore appropriate to
further consider plaintiffs non-exertional limitations due to her depression and anxiety and the
effects those limitations would have on the types of jobs plaintiff could perform.
Accordingly, for the reasons discussed above, plaintiffs motion for judgment on the
pleadings [DE 27] is GRANTED, defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 36] is
DENIED, and the decision of the ALJ is REMANDED to the Commissioner for further
proceedings consistent with the foregoing.
SO ORDERED, this / /
day ofMarch, 2014.
T RRENCE W. BOYLE
UNITED STATES DISTRIC
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