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Gill v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania

September 23, 2014

BRANDY A. GILL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

SYNOPSIS

Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental social security income and child disability benefits, alleging disability as the result of mental impairments in the nature of depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Her claim was denied initially upon hearing before an ALJ. The Appeals Council subsequently denied her request for review. Plaintiff now appeals the Commissioner’s decision. For the following reason, Plaintiff’s Motion will be denied, and Defendant’s granted.

OPINION

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior Judge.

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) 6 and 1383(c)(3) 7. Section 405(g) permits a district court to review the transcripts and records upon which a determination of the Commissioner is based, and the court will review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. §706. When reviewing a decision, the district court's role is limited to determining whether the record contains substantial evidence to support an ALJ's findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002).

Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate" to support a conclusion. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)). If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390.

A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision, or re-weigh the evidence of record; the court can only judge the propriety of the decision with reference to the grounds invoked by the Commissioner when the decision was rendered. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998); S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 - 97, 67 S.Ct. 1575, 91 L.Ed. 1995 (1947). Otherwise stated, “I may not weigh the evidence or substitute my own conclusion for that of the ALJ. I must defer to the ALJ's evaluation of evidence, assessment of the credibility of witnesses, and reconciliation of conflicting expert opinions. If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, I am bound by those findings, even if I would have decided the factual inquiry differently.” Brunson v. Astrue, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55457 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 14, 2011) (citations omitted).

II. PLAINTIFF’S MOTION

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly assessed her credibility, and improperly discredited assessments of Drs. Novero and Goral, and failed to consider two GAF scores assigned by those sources.

First, I note that an ALJ’s credibility determination is entitled to great deference. Degenaro-Huber v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 533 Fed.Appx. 73, 75 (3d Cir. 2013). Generally, overturning an ALJ's credibility determination is an "extraordinary step." See Sanford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41910, at *16 (D.N.J. Mar. 28, 2014). Here, the ALJ specifically considered Plaintiff’s subjective complaints against factors including her daily activities, her conduct at the hearing, prior work history, the medical records and functional limitations indicated by those records, and the overall preponderance of the evidence. While Plaintiff correctly notes that several of the noted considerations would not disprove disability or cause incredulity if taken alone, the ALJ thoroughly and specifically listed numerous bases for discounting Plaintiff’s credibility. The ALJ’s recitation of his findings and their bases is comprehensive and appropriate. In sum, the ALJ’s credibility determination was supported by substantial evidence.

Next, Plaintiff complains that the ALJ rejected the opinion of Dr. Goral because he was a one-time examiner, but accepted the opinion of another one-time examiner. The ALJ gave Dr. Goral’s opinion limited weight not only because he examined Plaintiff once, but because he relied “quite heavily” on, and “uncritically” accepted, Plaintiff’s subjective complaints. As discussed supra, the ALJ found reason to question those complaints.[1] As regards the GAF score, it is well-settled that such scores do not directly correlate to disability. Instead, they are medical evidence that informs the ALJ’s judgment of disability.[2]

The GAF is only a snapshot opinion about the level of functioning. It is one opinion that we consider with all the evidence about a person's functioning. Unless the clinician clearly explains the reasons behind his or her GAF rating, and the period to which the rating applies, it does not provide a reliable longitudinal picture of the claimant's mental functioning for a disability analysis.

Kroh v. Colvin, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122900, at *53 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 4, 2014).

As Plaintiff acknowledges, the ALJ reviewed and considered the records containing the subject GAF scores; it is clear that the ALJ ignored neither the scores nor their context. The ALJ’s ...


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