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Collier v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

May 14, 2018



          Crenshaw Judge

         Michael Collier has filed Objections (Doc. No. 24) to the Report and Recommendation (“R & R”) (Doc. No. 23) that recommends the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying disability benefits be affirmed. For the following reasons, those Objections will be sustained and this case will be reversed and remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration.

         The background underlying Collier's claim for benefits is laid out in detail in the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) Decision (Doc. No. 23), and aptly summarized in the R & R. Further repetition or restatement is unnecessary because Collier's Objections relate to certain omission in the ALJ's Decision. More specifically, Collier claims that the ALJ did not give proper weight to the opinions of Dr. Paul W. Brown, a psychologist, and Dr. James Hebda, a neuro-psychologist. The Court considers those objections in turn.

         I. Dr. Brown's Evaluation

         Discussing Dr. Brown's psychological evaluation, the ALJ wrote:

Based on his overall evaluation, Dr. Brown diagnosed the claimant with adjustment disorder with moderately depressed mood and assessed a Global Assessment of Functioning, or GAF, score of fifty-five to sixty. GAF score are subjective ratings of the social, occupational, and psychological functioning of adults and children. A GAF score of fifty-five to sixty suggests moderate symptoms or moderate difficulty in social, occupational, or school functioning. Consistent with his GAF score, Dr. Brown opined that the claimant had mild to moderate limitations in his ability to understand and remember and moderate limitation in his ability to sustain concentrations and persistence, interact with others, and adapt to changes and requirements. Dr. Brown opined that the claimant could perform simple routine activities for short periods of time but could not perform simple routine activities on a consistent basis over longer periods of time. However, he found that claimant could do activities with his own initiative or prompting, that he did not require a structured environment, and that he appeared to generally behave in an acceptable manner when engaged in activity.

(Doc. No. 13 at 25) (emphasis added).

         Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Dr. Brown's assessment was entitled to “significant weight, ” and concluded that it was “consistent with the residual function capacity” (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(a). (Id. at 18, 28). Under the light work regulations, the ALJ found Collier capable of performing work that is

limited to frequent balancing, kneeling, crouching, and climbing of ramps and stairs; occasional stooping and crawling; no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds; no overhead reaching with the right extremity; no concentrated exposure to extreme cold temperatures; no working at unprotected heights or around unguarded moving machinery; and no driving. Mentally, the claimant is limited to simple routine, repetitive tasks; occasional contact with the public[, ] coworkers, and supervisors; and infrequent workplace changes.

(Id. at 19) (emphasis added).

         Based upon these limitations and Collier's age, education, and work experience, the ALJ asked a Vocational Expert to determine whether jobs were available. The ALJ credited the Vocational Expert's opinion that there were a substantial number of assembler, marker, and hand packager jobs available (both in the regional and national economy) that Collier could perform.

         Notwithstanding the ALJ's conclusion that Dr. Brown's assessment was entitled to “great weight, ” Dr. Brown's conclusion that Collier could only perform simple routine activities for short periods does not square with the RFC designated by the ALJ. That RFC also does not include Dr. Brown's assessment that Collier “does not appear capable of performing simple routine activities on a consistent basis over longer period of time, ” or Dr. Brown's conclusion that Collier has only a “moderate ability” to “sustain concentration for at least a two hour period, persist during a workday or workweek without interruption from psychological symptoms, [and] work in coordination with and/or proximity to others without being distracted by them.” (Doc. No. 13 at 594). How those additional limitations may affect employability is unclear because the Vocational Expert based his opinion on the RFC formulated by the ALJ that did not include the limitation on simple routine activities to short periods. This is significant because “[i]n order for a vocational expert's testimony in response to a hypothetical question to serve as substantial evidence in support of the conclusion that a claimant can perform other work, the question must accurately portray a claimant's physical and mental impairments.” Ealy v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 594 F.3d 504, 516 (6th Cir. 2010).

         The Commissioner is correct that “[t]he fact that an ALJ assigns a medical opinion great or significant weight does not mean that he must wholly adopt the opinion.” (Doc. No. 21 at 5 citing, Greer v. Colvin, No. 3:14-CV-1777, 2015 WL 1839768, at *10 (M.D. Tenn. Apr. 20, 2015)) However, “‘[a]n ALJ has the obligation to consider all relevant medical evidence and cannot simply cherry-pick facts that support a finding of nondisability while ignoring evidence that points to a disability finding.'” Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 869 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting Denton v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010)). Thus, even though “[t]he ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, . . . he must provide a ‘logical bridge' between the evidence and his conclusions.” Getch v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 473, 480 (7th Cir. 2008). The logical bridge between Dr. Brown's “great weight” conclusion that Collier could perform simple routine tasks only for short periods and the conclusion that Collier was able to perform light work is not readily apparent.

         II. Dr. Hebda's ...

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