United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.
Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 9 and 13). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (ECF Nos. 10, 14 and 16). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am granting in part and denying in part Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 9) and denying Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 13).
Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her applications for supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"). Plaintiff filed her applications alleging she had been disabled since January 1, 2006. (ECF No. 7-7, pp. 4, 8). Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), David J. Kozma, held a hearing on August 18, 2011. (ECF No. 7-7, pp. 32-42). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 30, 2011. (ECF No. 7-4, pp. 8-14). The Appeals Council remanded for a new hearing. Id. at p. 18. On April 18, 2013, the ALJ held a new hearing. (ECF No. 7-3, pp. 2-32). On February 7, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (ECF No. 7-2, pp. 22-42).
After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed the instant action with this court. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 9 and 13). The issues are now ripe for review.
II. LEGAL ANALYSIS
A. Standard of Review
The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995), quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Additionally, the Commissioner's findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See, 5 U.S.C. §706.
To be eligible for social security benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate that he cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).
The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a). The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R., pt. 404, subpt. P., appx. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his previous employment (steps 1-4). Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 406. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can engage in alternative substantial gainful activity (step 5). Id.
A district court, after reviewing the entire record may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision with or without remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).
B. Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF")
Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred in failing to consider any of Plaintiff's GAF history, including fifty-three scores. (ECF No. 10, pp. 3-6). As such, Plaintiff submits that the case should be remanded for further consideration. Id.
The GAF scale is used to report the "clinician's judgment of the individual's overall level of functioning" in light of his psychological, social, and occupational limitations. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 32 (4th ed. Text Revision 2000). The GAF ratings range from 1 to 100. Plaintiff's GAF scores ranged from 25 to 55. A GAF score of 51 to 60 indicates moderate symptoms, (e.g. circumstantial speech and occasional panic attacks or moderate difficulty in social or occupational functioning as evidenced by few friends and conflicts with peers or coworkers). See American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, at 34 (4th ed.2000). A GAF score of 41-50 indicates "[s]erious symptoms (e.g. suicidal ideation, severe obsessional rituals, frequent shoplifting) OR any serious impairment in social, occupation, or school functioning (e.g., no friends, unable to keep a job)." Id. A GAF rating of 21-30 indicates that an individual's "[b]ehavior is ...