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Hartsfield v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

March 29, 2017




         Plaintiff Kutina Loketa Hartsfield suffers from alcohol abuse, posttraumatic stress disorder, and either bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder with psychotic features. She sought supplemental security income under the Social Security Act. In June 2014, an administrative law judge acting on behalf of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security concluded that Hartsfield was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Hartsfield appealed here. The Court referred her motion for summary judgment (R. 12) and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (R. 15) to Executive Magistrate Judge R. Steven Whalen, who recommends affirming the ALJ's disability determination. Hartsfield objects.

         Having performed a de novo review of those portions of the magistrate judge's report and recommendation to which Hartsfield has objected, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(b); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985), the Court will overrule the objections and adopt the recommendation of the magistrate judge for the reasons explained below.

         Hartsfield's first objection reads as follows: “The Magistrate [Judge] erred when he found that it was proper for the ALJ to conclude that Plaintiff experienced mild limitation in activities of daily living and moderate limitation in social functioning and concentration, persistence, or pace after the ALJ rejected Plaintiff's long-time treater, Dr. Stevenson's findings, and relied instead on the non-examining opinion of Dr. Leno.” (R. 17, PID 532.)

         The first part of this objection is unclear, as the body of Hartsfield's argument fails to explain any error surrounding the ALJ's conclusion “that Plaintiff experienced mild limitation in activities of daily living and moderate limitation in social functioning and concentration, persistence, or pace.” In fact, Hartsfield's argument does not mention this issue at all. So the Court will not address it. See McPherson v. Kelsey, 125 F.3d 989, 995-96 (6th Cir. 1997) (“Issues adverted to in a perfunctory manner, unaccompanied by some effort at developed argumentation, are deemed waived. It is not sufficient for a party to mention a possible argument in the most skeletal way, leaving the court to put flesh on its bones.”).

         The essence of Hartsfield's objection seems to be that the magistrate judge erred in finding that the ALJ properly assigned little weight to the opinion of a treating psychiatrist, Dr. Stephanie Stevenson, M.D., who opined that Hartsfield was disabled.

         This is the background. At her hearing before the ALJ, Hartsfield testified that the thrust of her disability claim was that she “can't be around people.” (R. 7-2, PID 83.) But in periodic treatment records from 2011 to 2013 at Development Centers, Dr. Stevenson often noted that Hartsfield's grooming, hygiene, and concentration were all “good, ” her behavior “cooperative, ” and her thoughts “organized.” Those records also reflected that Hartsfield was depressed and reported hallucinations and homicidal or suicidal ideations.

         By July 2013, Dr. Stevenson noted that while Hartsfield was grieving her mother's death and “sensing” her mother's “presence, ” she had “plans to go with her friend to Texas for a vacation” and “reported no problems with her current medication regimen.” (R. 7-8, PID 421.) Although Dr. Stevenson noted Hartsfield's depression and hallucinations, Hartsfield had “denied having suicidal or homicidal ideations” at that particular exam. (R. 7-8, PID 421, 424.) And similar to various prior records, Dr. Stevenson also indicated that Hartsfield's grooming, hygiene, and concentration were all “good, ” her behavior was “cooperative, ” and her thoughts were “organized and coherent.” (Id.) The next month's record had nothing notable in it, with much of the form left blank. (R. 7-8, PID 417-20.) Then, suddenly, in October 2013-without any intervening treatment records from Dr. Stevenson suggesting a change-Dr. Stevenson and an outpatient therapist opined in a letter that because of Hartsfield's symptoms, including “severe depression, ” “some paranoia, ” and her reports of hallucinations, she is “not able to work at all, whether part time or full time work.” (R. 7-7, PID 365.)

         The ALJ gave Dr. Stevenson's opinion little weight, for several reasons. (R. 7-2, PID 62.) First, the ALJ stated that the determination of whether someone is disabled is reserved to the Commissioner. (Id.) Second, the ALJ reasoned that Dr. Stevenson's conclusion about Hartsfield's limitations “is more severe than reflected in the treatment records.” (Id.) Third, the ALJ pointed out that in Stevenson's treatment records “[Hartsfield's] GAF scores are consistently at 50 and do not change even with some reported improvement with treatment.”[1]

         (Id.) Finally, the ALJ found that Hartsfield's symptoms “do continue and are severe, and there is some evidence of episodic hallucinations, but not to the extent, [sic] they would preclude even simple work in a low stress environment.” (Id.)

         In Hartsfield's summary-judgment motion, she challenged the ALJ's consideration of Dr. Stevenson's opinion on this ground: “nowhere in the decision does the ALJ address the length of time the providers have been treating her, the frequency of examination, and the nature and extent of treatment relationship.” (R. 12, PID 472.)

         The magistrate judge rejected this argument, finding that the ALJ's opinion expressly discussed the nature, length, and frequency of Dr. Stevenson's treatment. (R. 16, PID 525.) (As the ALJ expressly noted of Stevenson's treatment, Hartsfield had “been seen on an individual basis for the past two years . . . for monthly therapy sessions and at least once a month [by Dr. Stevenson] for psychiatric care.” (R. 7-2, PID 62.)) The magistrate judge also found that the ALJ's analysis of Dr. Stevenson's opinion “is otherwise well supported and explained” because the ALJ “noted that Dr. Stevenson's opinion was inconsistent with the treating records” and “prefaced his analysis with a thorough discussion” of those records. (R. 16, PID 525.) The magistrate judge also said that his own review of the records supported the ALJ's determination because Hartsfield “exhibited a consistently unremarkable thought process, denied suicidal or homicidal plans, and was cooperative and well-groomed despite her alleged difficulty interacting with others.” (Id.) Finally, the magistrate judge added, “[w]hile Hartsfield's part-time work as a security guard does not rise to the level of past relevant work, her ability to work part time without incident subsequent to the alleged onset of disability also undermines Dr. Stevenson's opinion that Plaintiff was psychologically unable to perform any work.” (R. 16, PID 525.) This referred to Hartsfield's own testimony that she sporadically worked part-time as a security guard, even after her alleged onset of disability, January 1, 2010. (See R. 7-2, PID 81-82.)

         With that background in mind, the Court turns to Hartsfield's argument in her first objection. It is two-fold. First, she claims that the evidence discussed by the ALJ is “hardly inconsistent” with Dr. Stevenson's sweeping conclusion that she cannot work at all. (See R. 17, PID 533.) But she relies almost entirely on the GAF scores that Dr. Stevenson assigned. Those scores do not show that the ALJ's rejection of Dr. Stevenson's opinion was unreasonable. While “consistency among low GAF scores” may show “that an ALJ minimized the severity of a claimant's symptoms and failed to provide good reasons for assigning limited weight to a treating doctor's opinion, ” Miller v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 811 F.3d 825, 835-36 (6th Cir. 2016) (citing Keeton v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 583 F. App'x 515, 530 n.6 (6th Cir. 2014)), the ALJ acknowledged the severity of Hartsfield's symptoms, and reasonably found that while severe, they were not severe enough to justify Dr. Stevenson's conclusion that Hartsfield was totally unable to work. Additionally, “GAF scores are not raw medical data, and the Commissioner has declined to endorse the [GAF] score for use in Social Security benefits programs.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Moreover, the Court agrees with the Commissioner that one can infer from the ALJ's reference to the scores that the ALJ found them to be unreliable- and for good reason. The Court's own examination of Dr. Stevenson's treatment records reveals that despite periodic changes in Hartsfield's condition throughout the years of treatment- including whether she reported hallucinations or suicidal ideations-Dr. Stevenson never varied from a GAF score of “50” and never explained why she held steadfast to that number.

         The second aspect of Hartsfield's first objection is also unavailing. Hartsfield argues that, contrary to the magistrate judge's conclusion, her part time sporadic work history as a security guard “actually supports Dr. Stevenson's opinion” that she is disabled. (R. 17, PID 535 (emphasis in original).) It is true that in the mental health context, a sporadic work history could lend itself to the conclusion that a claimant is unable to engage in substantial gainful employment. See Gleason v. Colvin, 152 F.Supp.3d 364, 384 (M.D. Pa. 2015) (citing cases). But recall the breadth of Dr. Stevenson's opinion: it was not simply that Hartsfield cannot engage in substantial gainful activity but rather that she cannot “work at all, whether part time or full time.” (R. 7-7, PID 365.) That opinion left no room for the possibility that Hartsfield could work part time, even on a sporadic basis. Yet Hartsfield's history as a security guard after her alleged onset date contradicts that conclusion. And even if the magistrate judge erred by discounting Dr. Stevenson's opinion with Hartfield's work history (something the ALJ apparently did not take into consideration), this does not show that the ALJ erred in assigning Dr. Stevenson's opinion little weight. Accordingly, the Court overrules Hartsfield's first objection. Hartsfield's second objection fares no better. She objects that “[t]he Magistrate [Judge] erred in finding the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence.” (R. 17, PID 536.) The body of her argument fails to elaborate sufficiently beyond that. Hartsfield argues that “both the ALJ and the Magistrate Judge misconstrued medical evidence and testimony that ultimately, resulted in an inadequate RFC to address Plaintiff's multiple severe medical conditions (specifically, bi-polar disorder, major depressive disorder, recurring with the severe psychotic features, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse, and personality disorder NOS, and paranoid personality disorder, left foot keratitis and obesity).” (R. 17, PID 536.) She ...

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