United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, District Judge.
Plaintiff Thomas Atha, Jr. filed this action on October 9, 2012, pursuant to Title XVI of Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act. Mr. Atha seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. The Commissioner affirmed the Administrative Law Judge's denial of Mr. Atha's claims for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income benefits. For the reasons stated below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The scope of review in this matter is limited. "When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, " the Court "review[s] the ALJ's factual findings with deference' and his legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'" Riggs v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).
The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the findings of the Commissioner. "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In making this evaluation, the Court may not "reweigh the evidence or decide the facts anew, " and the Court must "defer to the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence even if the evidence may preponderate against it." Gaskin v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 533 Fed.Appx. 929, 930 (11th Cir. 2013).
With respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
II. PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Mr. Atha alleges that his disability began on October 13, 2008. (Doc. 8, p. 1). Mr. Atha first applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and social security income benefits on January 12, 2009. (Doc. 4-3, p. 18; Doc. 4-8, p. 2). The Social Security Administration denied Mr. Atha's claims on March 24, 2009. (Doc. 4-3, p. 18). At Mr. Atha's request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a video hearing on June 22, 2010, and held a subsequent supplemental video hearing on November 2, 2010. (Doc. 4-4, pp. 2-47, 85-130). At the time of his hearings, Mr. Atha was 35 years old. (Doc. 4-7, p. 2). Mr. Atha has completed his GED. (Doc. 4-8, p. 42-43). His past relevant work experience is as a vinyl siding installer, trailer assembler, and sheetrock hanger. (Doc. 4-4, p. 33; Doc. 4-7, p. 2; Doc. 4-8, pp. 25, 38).
On December 11, 2010, the ALJ denied Mr. Atha's request for disability benefits, concluding that Mr. Atha is not disabled under sections 216(i), 223(d), or 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 4-3, p. 35). In his 18-page decision, the ALJ described the "five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled." ( Id. pp. 19-21). In addition to the five-step process, the ALJ explained that if "the claimant is disabled and there is medical evidence of substance use disorders, the undersigned must determine if the substance use disorders are a contributing factor material to the determination of disability." ( Id. p. 21). The ALJ must "evaluate the extent to which the claimant's mental and physical limitations would remain if the claimant stopped the substance use." ( Id. ). If the remaining limitations would not be disabling, the claimant's substance abuse is material and "the claimant is not disabled." ( Id. ).
The ALJ found that there is no evidence that Mr. Atha "has engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2003." ( Id. ). In addition, the ALJ determined that Mr. Atha has the following severe impairments:
status post fracture of the left patella with open reduction internal fixation; status post fracture of the distal tibia and fibular shafts with open reduction internal fixation; mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; depressive disorder with agitated features; alcohol dependence with physiological dependence by history; polysubstance abuse and dependence by history; and low average to borderline intellectual functioning.
( Id. ). The ALJ did not find Mr. Atha's history of pancreatitis to be a severe impairment because Mr. Atha's "history of pancreatitis does not significantly limit his ability to perform basic work activities, " and because Mr. Atha testified that pancreatitis was no longer problematic. ( Id. at 26). The ALJ also determined that Mr. Atha's previous shotgun wounds did not constitute a severe impairment because he did not have "any significant residuals from that incident." ( Id. ). Finally, The ALJ found that while Mr. Atha was diagnosed with hepatitis, there was no evidence that Mr. Atha had any symptoms, and thus it was not a severe impairment. ( Id. ).
The ALJ concluded that Mr. Atha's mental impairments, including his substance use disorders, met or equaled the criteria of a listed impairment from December 31, 2003 through July 6, 2010. ( Id. at 26). Specifically, the ALJ found that, considering Mr. Atha's substance use, Mr. Atha had (1) a marked restriction in the activities of daily life; (2) marked difficulties in social functioning; (3) marked difficulties in concentration, persistence or pace; and (4) repeated episodes of decompensation. ( Id. at 27). The ALJ also concluded that Mr. Atha did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met the criteria of a listed impairment after July 6, 2010. ( Id. at 26).
In making this determination, the ALJ considered the testimony of Dr. Warren, the medical expert who testified at the November 2010 hearing. ( Id. at 27). Dr. Warren testified that Mr. Atha's mental impairments met the criteria of 12.04 and 12.09 when he was drinking, but that Mr. Atha's impairments did not meet the criteria of either listing when he was not drinking. ( Id. ). The ALJ gave significant weight to the testimony of Dr. Warren because it was consistent with Mr. Atha's medical records and the other testimony given at the hearings. The ALJ gave some weight to the opinions of the State agency's nonexamining psychiatrist and psychologist, but noted that they did not have access to all of the evidence and testimony available at the hearing. The ALJ found it significant that the State agency psychologist determined that Mr. Atha's "mental impairments met the criteria of section 12.09 in the presence of substance use, and that the claimant's depression in the absence of substance use caused no more than moderate mental limitations." ( Id. ).
The ALJ determined that if Mr. Atha had stopped substance use from December 31, 2003 through July 6, 2010, Mr. Atha would still have severe impairments, but such impairments would not meet or equal a listing. ( Id. at 28). The ALJ also determined that Mr. Atha's impairments after July 6, 2010 would not meet or equal a listing. ( Id. ). Looking to the testimony of Dr. Wilson, who performed psychological evaluations of Mr. Atha in June and November of 2010,  the ALJ found that without substance use, Mr. Atha would have (1) mild limitations in activities of daily living; (2) moderate limitations in social functioning; (3) moderate limitations in concentration, persistence and pace; and (4) no episodes of decompensation. ( Id. at 29). In addition, the ALJ found that if Mr. Atha stopped his substance abuse, his impairments would not meet the "paragraph C" criteria. ( Id. ).
Next, the ALJ calculated Mr. Atha's residual functional capacity. The ALJ determined that without Mr. Atha's substance use through July 6, 2010 and for the time period thereafter, Mr. Atha would have the RFC to perform sedentary work that required sitting at least six hours and standing or walking two hours out of every eight hour workday; avoiding concentrated exposure to extremes of heat, cold, humidity, and vibration; and only occasional bilateral pushing and pulling with pedal operation with bilateral lower extremities. ( Id. at 30). The ALJ also found that Mr. Atha could "understand, remember, and carry out instructions sufficient to complete very simple, routine repetitive ...