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Black v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

April 16, 2015

DORA BLACK, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, District Judge.

SYNOPSIS

Plaintiff filed applications for social security and disability benefits pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging disability due to various physical and mental impairments. Plaintiff's application was denied initially, and upon hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). The Appeals Council denied her request for review. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion will be denied, and Defendant's granted.

OPINION

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

Presently, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ applied an incorrect standard in failing to assess her global functioning assessment ("GAF") scores, and dealt improperly with the medical opinion of record.

A. GAF Scores

Although the GAF scores do not have a direct correlation to the severity requirements used for disability determinations, GAF scores constitute relevant medical evidence that "must be addressed by an ALJ in making a determination regarding a claimant's disability." Colon v. Barnhart, 424 F.Supp.2d 805, 812 (E.D. Pa. 2006); 66 Fed. Reg. 50764-5 (2000).

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).

Thus, a failure to refer to or rely on GAF scores, even if those scores are similar, is not necessarily error. Rios v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 444 Fed.Appx. 532, 534-35 (3d Cir. 2011). This is particularly true if the mental health provider's report does not relate the score to specific limitations, or explain the basis for the GAF rating, or if the ALJ discussed the records where the GAF scores were provided. See Gilroy v. Astrue, 351 F. Appx. 714, 715-16 (3d Cir. 2009); Shamonsky v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 80853, *19 (W.D. Pa. July 25, 2011). Moreover, "[a]n ALJ's failure to include a GAF score in his or her discussion is considered to be harmless error where a claimant has not explained how the GAF score would have ...


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