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Rivera v. Astrue

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 27, 2014

GILB RIVERA
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY

For GILB RIVERA, Plaintiff: BETH ARNOLD, LEAD ATTORNEY, BINDER AND BINDER, MERION, PA.

For MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant: ANDREW C. LYNCH, SSA/OGC REGION 3, PHILADELPHIA, PA; EDA GIUSTI, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMIN, OFFICE OF THE GENERAL COUNSEL, PHILADELPHIA, PA; M. JARED LITTMAN, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMIN, OFFICE OF GENERAL COUNSEL, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

OPINION

Page 496

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Savage, J.

This case presents a recurring issue in appeals from a denial of Supplemental Security Income (" SSI" ) benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (" Act" ), 42 U.S.C. § § 401-33 -- to what extent must an Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ) consider, treat and explain Global Assessment of Functioning (" GAF" ) scores in determining a claimant's residual functional capacity.[1] The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has not issued a precedential opinion holding that an ALJ's failure to address GAF scores requires remand. However, district courts in this circuit have repeatedly held that it does.

The plaintiff Gilb Rivera requests review of the ALJ's decision denying him benefits. He contends the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the medical evidence concerning both his mental and physical impairments, and improperly rejected the treating doctors' opinions in favor of his own.

After an independent review of the administrative record, we conclude that the ALJ failed to explain how he considered

Page 497

Rivera's eight GAF scores, which were between 40-45 and 51 during a nine-month period. As a result, we are unable to determine whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, we shall remand the case to the Commissioner.

Background and Procedural History

On September 15, 2009, Rivera, who was then thirty-nine, applied for SSI benefits, alleging disability as of December 31, 2007, due to, among other things, fibromyalgia, thoracic disc displacement, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, gout, and obesity. R. at 16, 18, 22-23, 26, 152-53. He did not claim any emotional or mental problems. R. at 152-53. In 2010, Rivera was diagnosed with mood and anxiety disorders. R. at 23. After his SSI application was denied, Rivera timely requested a hearing. R. at 64-65. Following a hearing held on February 22, 2011, at which Rivera was represented by counsel, the ALJ determined that Rivera had severe impairments, including degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, obesity, an anxiety disorder, and an affective disorder. R. at 18. He concluded these impairments did not preclude Rivera's performing sedentary work, but found him limited to simple unskilled work with only occasional contact with the general public. R. at 21. Relying upon GRID Rule 201.28,[2] he then determined that there were jobs available in the national economy that Rivera could perform. R. at 26. Accordingly, on March 11, 2011, the ALJ concluded that Martinez was not disabled. R. at 27.

On September 26, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Rivera's request for review, making the ALJ's decision final. R. at 1-4. Rivera then filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision.

ALJ's Findings

The ALJ made the following findings in his March 11, 2011 decision:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2012.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2007, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq. ).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, obesity, an anxiety disorder and an affective disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments

Page 498

that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except that he is limited to simple unskilled work with only occasional contact with the general public. However, his remaining mental capacities are sufficient to meet the intellectual and emotional demands of at least unskilled, competitive, remunerative work on a sustained basis. In addition, the claimant is capable of understanding, remembering and carrying out simple instructions; making judgments that are commensurate with the functions of unskilled work (i.e., simple work-related decisions); responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers and usual work situations; and dealing with changes in a routine work setting.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565).
7. The claimant was born on August 8, 1970 and was 37 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563).
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is " not disabled," whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See ...

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