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Porterfield v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

June 21, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT




         This recommended disposition has been submitted to Chief United States District Judge Brian S. Miller. The parties may file specific objections to these findings and recommendations and must provide the factual or legal basis for each objection. The objections must be filed with the Clerk no later than fourteen (14) days from the date of the findings and recommendations. A copy must be served on the opposing party. The district judge, even in the absence of objections, may reject these proposed findings and recommendations in whole or in part.



         Kecia E. Porterfield (“Plaintiff”) has appealed the final administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security to deny her claim for a social security income and disability insurance benefits. (Doc. No. 3.) Both parties have submitted appeal briefs (Doc. Nos. 14, 17), and the case is now ready for a decision.

         This review function is extremely limited. A court's function on review is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole and free of legal error. Slusser v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 923, 925 (8th Cir. 2009); Long v. Chater, 108 F.3d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997); see also 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Reynolds v. Chater, 82 F.3d 254, 257 (8th Cir. 1996). In assessing the substantiality of the evidence, courts must consider evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision as well as evidence that supports it; a court may not, however, reverse the Commissioner's decision merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision. Sultan v. Barnhart, 368 F.3d 857, 863 (8th Cir. 2004); Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F.3d 1210, 1213 (8th Cir. 1993).

         The history of the administrative proceedings and the statement of facts relevant to this decision are contained in the respective briefs and are not in serious dispute. Therefore, they will not be repeated in this opinion except as necessary. After careful consideration of the record as a whole, I find the decision of the Commissioner should be affirmed.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff was fifty-two at the time of the most recent administrative hearing. (Tr. 987.) Her insurance will run through December 31, 2019, so Plaintiff must establish disability on or before that date in order to be entitled to a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Tr.8.) Plaintiff testified she earned an associate degree. (Tr. 987.) She has past relevant work as a customer service representative, receptionist, and accounts payable/receivable clerk. (Tr. 968.)

         The Administrative Law Judge[1] (“ALJ”) found Plaintiff had a combination of “severe” impairments, including: fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal issues related to Chron's disease and/or irritable bowel syndrome, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. (Tr. 947.) The ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments meeting or equaling an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.[2] (Tr. 948-949.) However, fibromyalgia, one of Plaintiff's most severe symptoms, is not a listed physical impairment within the context of the Act. (Tr. 948.)

         The ALJ assessed that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a reduced range of light work. (Tr. 950.) Based on this finding, the ALJ determined Ms. Porterfield could no longer perform her past relevant work. (Tr. 968.) However, utilizing the services of a vocational expert, (Tr. 1007-1011), the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform other jobs that exist in the national economy - namely housekeeper and price tag ticketer. (Tr. 969.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 950.)

         In support of her Complaint, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by failing to evaluate or consider the reported global assessment of functioning (“GAF”) scores of record. (Doc. No. 14 at 12-14.) Plaintiff experienced periods of time where her GAF score would remain below 50 for several consecutive months. (Doc. No. 14 at 13.) From January 27 to September 17, 2015, her GAF score was consistently rated as 45. (Tr. 711, 886.) During this time, Plaintiff was diagnosed with and treated for major depressive disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder by Tara Smith, LAC, and Sharon Curtis, M.D. (Tr. 711, 717, 729-738, 821-886.) Her GAF score, however, did not change. (Id.) Since the ALJ did not take Plaintiff's GAF score as a direct indicator of a disability, Plaintiff argues that the case should be reversed and remanded. (Doc. No. 14 at 14.)

         I have carefully considered Plaintiff's argument but find it to be without merit. Because the GAF scale is a tool used by mental health professionals to determine proper treatment options, it is not perfectly suited to determine a petitioner's disability status under the Act. Halverson v. Astrue, 600 F.3d 922, 930-931 (8th Cir. 2010). While an ALJ is not able to completely overlook GAF scores in the disability assessment process, a GAF score below 50 is still not an automatic indicator of disability. See Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 944-45 (8th Cir. 2009); Jones, 619 F.3d at 973-74. GAF scores in the mid-40s to low-50s are not necessarily dispositive and “an ALJ ...

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