United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Jonesboro Division
ORDER REMANDING TO THE COMMISSIONER
Amanda Adams seeks the review of the denial of her claims for disability benefits. Ms. Adams alleged onset date of December 15, 2012, based on a left foot injury, bipolar condition, personality disorder, anxiety, and PTSD. (R. at 47). The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a hearing on the denial of those applications, and issued a decision denying benefits. The Appeals Council denied Ms. Adams’s request for reconsideration. (R. at 1). Thus, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision. The parties have consented to this court’s jurisdiction.
I. The Commissioner’s Decision
The ALJ determined at step 1 of the five-step process that Ms. Adams had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. at 15). At step 2, the ALJ found that Ms. Adams had the severe impairments of mood disorder not otherwise specified, adjustment disorder, borderline personality disorder, bipolar 1 disorder most recent/current mixed severe without psychotic features, and generalized anxiety disorder at step 2. (R. at 15). At step 3, the ALJ determined that Ms. Adams's impairments neither met nor equaled any of the listings. (R. at 16).
Prior to moving to step 4, the ALJ found that Ms. Adams had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of physical activity at all exertional levels but with nonexertional limitations. (R. at 18). According to the ALJ’s findings, Ms. Adams retained the mental ability to understand, remember and carry out simple jobs and instructions; make judgments in simple work-related situations; respond appropriately to co-workers and supervisors with occasional incidental contact that is not necessary to perform the work; and respond appropriately to minor changes in usual work routine. He concluded that she should have no dealings with the general public. (R. at 18).
Applying this RFC, the ALJ found that Ms. Adams could not return to past relevant work. (R. at 22). Proceeding to step 5, the ALJ found that Ms. Adams could perform jobs such as kitchen helper and warehouse worker and, therefore, was not disabled. (R. at 23-24).
Ms. Adams asserts that the ALJ erred in denying her claims for disability benefits because substantial evidence did not support the RFC. She argues that the hypothetical posed to the vocational expert was flawed, thus rendering the step 5 determination error.
Specifically, Ms. Adams contends that the ALJ failed to fully develop the record because there was no opinion from a treating or examining provider in the record. She contends that the ALJ improperly made independent medical findings from the record and improperly disregarded her Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) scores.
In reviewing ALJ's decision, this Court determines if it is supported by “substantial evidence on the record as a whole.” Wilcutts v. Apfel, 143 F.3d 1134, 1136 (8th Cir. 1998). The Court must consider the weight of the evidence supporting the ALJ’s decision and balance it against any contradictory evidence. Id. The Court will not reverse, however, “merely because substantial evidence exists for the opposite decision.” Long v. Chater, 108 F.3d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997) (quoting Johnson v. Chater, 87 F.3d 1015, 1017 (8th Cir. 1996)).
The record in this matter is devoid of opinion evidence from a treating or examining physician. (R. at 55). Ms. Adams contends that the ALJ had the responsibility to re-contact Ms. Adams’s treating providers or to order a consultative examination to develop the record. The Commissioner responds that the evidence in the record is sufficient to support the ALJ's decision.
The ALJ has a duty to develop the record fully and must order a consultative examination if necessary to make an informed decision, even where the claimant is represented by counsel. Dozier v. Heckler, 754 F.2d 274, 276 (8th Cir. 1985). The ALJ is obligated to order an examination, however, only if there is not sufficient medical evidence to determine whether the claimant is disabled. Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 926-27 (8th Cir. 2011).
The Commissioner cites Sultan v. Barnhart, 368 F.3d 857 (8th Cir. 2004) for the proposition that a consultative examination was unnecessary because other evidence in the record was sufficient. Sultan is not analogous because in that case treating physicians’ opinions were discredited, and the court of appeals held it unnecessary to re-contact those providers or order a consultative examination. 368 F.3d at 863. The key difference between Sultan and this case is that the record Sultan included many opinions from treating or examining providers. Id. at 860-61. The record here, by contrast, includes treatment records, but no opinion evidence from any treating or examining physician.
Furthermore, the record here includes very little objective evidence regarding the limitations Ms. Adams’s mental impairments impose. Almost all of the evidence regarding those limitations derives from her testimony or treatment notes regarding her own statements. The ALJ’s duty to develop the record “includes the responsibility of ensuring that the record includes evidence from a treating physician, or at least an examining physician, addressing the particular impairments at issue.” Strongson v. Barnhart, 361 F.3d 1066, 1071-72 (8th Cir. 2004). The ALJ should have taken measures to further develop the record by ordering a consultative examination or re-contacting Ms. Adams’s treating physicians.
Ms. Adams also argues that the ALJ erred in drawing his own inferences from the medical records. “An administrative law judge may not draw upon his own inferences from medical reports.” Lund v. Weinberger, 520 F.2d 782, 785 (8th Cir. 1975). The Commissioner does not directly address this argument, instead resting on the sufficiency of the evidence in the record. The ALJ extensively discussed treatment notes throughout the decision, such as Ms. Adams’s statements to her treating providers; notes of appearance, mood, attitude, and suicidal or homicidal ideation; and ...