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Long v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

May 28, 2013

Nicole Long
Commissioner of Social Security


Dear Counsel:

On August 14, 2012, Nicole Long petitioned this Court to review the Social Security

Administration's denial of her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 16, 19). This Court must uphold the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and if proper legal standards were employed. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (superseded by statute on other grounds). I find that no hearing is necessary. Local R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2011). I will grant the Commissioner's motion and deny Ms. Long's motion. This letter explains my rationale.

Ms. Long applied for benefits on January 5, 2009, alleging a disability onset date of March 31, 2007. (Tr. 137-41). Her claim was denied initially on April 29, 2009, and on reconsideration on December 21, 2009. (Tr. 59-66, 71-72). A hearing was held on October 1, 2010, before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 26-54). Following the hearing, on December 21, 2010, the ALJ issued an opinion denying benefits. (Tr. 10-25). Because the Appeals Council denied Ms. Long's request for review, (Tr. 1-5), the ALJ's decision is the final, reviewable decision of the agency.

The ALJ evaluated Ms. Long's claim using the five-step sequential process for claims involving SSI, as set forth in 20 CFR § 416.920. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Long suffered from severe impairments including low back pain, headaches, obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, developmental arithmetic disorder, bipolar disorder and substance abuse. (Tr. 15). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Long had retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to:

[P]erform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The claimant is limited to unskilled work, work that is repetitive in nature and involves routine, general goals vs. production rate goals, occasional interaction with others, few if any changes in work setting and work that is solitary in nature.

(Tr. 17). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ found that Ms. Long could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the local and national economies, and that she was therefore not disabled during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 19-20).

Ms. Long asserts several arguments in support of her appeal. While I agree with Ms. Long that certain sections of the ALJ's opinion would have been better if they contained additional explanation, ultimately, Ms. Long's arguments lack merit and the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence.

First, Ms. Long contends that the ALJ failed to discuss the GAF score determined by consultative examiner Dr. Hirsch. However, GAF scores do not govern an ALJ's analysis. "[A] GAF score is not determinative of whether a person is disabled. Rather, the Social Security Administration does not endorse the use of the GAF in Social Security and SSI disability programs, and it does not directly correlate to the severity requirements in the mental disorders listings." Melgarejo v. Astrue, No. JKS 08-3140, 2009 WL 5030706, at *2 (D. Md. Dec.15, 2009) (citing Revised Medical Criteria for Evaluating Mental Disorders and Traumatic Brain Injury, 65 Fed. Reg. 50746, 50764-65 (Aug. 21, 2000)). The ALJ's failure to evaluate Dr. Hirsch's assigned GAF score therefore does not warrant remand. Moreover, the VE's testimony that the GAF score "indicates that Dr. Hirsch believes that this individual would not be able to perform any substantial gainful activity[, ]" (Tr. 52), constitutes a medical conclusion outside the purview of a VE's expertise. See Johnson v. Califano, 434 F.Supp. 302, 310 (D. Md. 1977) (noting that "the purpose of a [VE's] testimony is to demonstrate a claimant's vocational, as opposed to medical, capacity to perform certain jobs.") The ALJ therefore did not err in failing to consider that portion of the VE's testimony.

While the ALJ certainly could have provided express analysis of Dr. Hirsch's evaluation, it is clear that the ALJ incorporated at least one of the diagnoses from Dr. Hirsch's report, "arithmetic developmental disorder, " into his opinion. (Tr. 15, 368). Dr. Hirsch's suggestion that another individual be responsible for handling Ms. Long's benefits, if awarded, is also not relevant to the determination whether she is capable of performing substantial gainful employment. (Tr. 368). An ability to manage finances is not required for simple, unskilled job tasks.

Ms. Long's suggestion that the ALJ's limitation to solitary work is inconsistent with his finding of only mild limitations in social functioning is flawed. The general categorization of limitations as "mild, " "moderate, " or "marked" does not translate precisely into any particular RFC restrictions in a given case. Moreover, to the extent that the ALJ included an unnecessary RFC restriction, the fact that jobs still existed even with the unnecessary restriction suggests that elimination of that restriction would result in the same outcome.

Ms. Long's next argument is that the ALJ's hypothetical to the VE did not track the opinion of state agency consultant Dr. Boyer, or any other medical source. In making that contention, however, Ms. Long relies on Dr. Boyer's categorization of her impairments as "mild" or "moderate."[1] Those categories are relevant to the step three listing analysis of the Paragraph B criteria for mental health listings. They are not directly material to an RFC or a hypothetical question, which should be presented in terms of practical, work-related restrictions.

Ms. Long contends that the ALJ should have assigned weight to the opinion of her treating counselor, Ms. Wells-Lay. Sources that are not medical doctors are considered "other sources." While ALJs are required to consider evidence from other sources, such as Ms. Wells-Lay, uch sources cannot give medical opinions or be entitled to controlling weight. See SSR 06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939, at *2. Under those governing principles, the ALJ adequately considered Ms. Wells-Lay's opinion. Although assigning the opinion "no weight, " the ALJ noted that ...

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