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Glass v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

March 29, 2017

LARRY GLASS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          T. MICHAEL PUTNAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Introduction

         The plaintiff, Larry Glass, appeals the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Mr. Glass timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §' 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to the exercise of dispositive jurisdiction by the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         Mr. Glass was 46 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision, and he has some college education[1] and has worked at a variety of newspaper jobs, including as a writer, editor, and photographer. (Tr. at 26, 51). Mr. Glass claims that he became disabled on February 1, 2010, due to Guillian-Barré Syndrome (“GBS”) with related polynuerophathy in the lower extremities, bipolar disorder, seizures, anxiety disorder, visual deficits, tremors (Parkinsonism), memory loss, impaired judgment, and obsessive compulsive disorder. He also has a history of alcohol abuse. (Tr. at 23, 232).

         When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is “doing substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If he is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If he is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the claimant's physical and mental impairments combined. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled. Id. The decision depends upon the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, which is a determination of whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments fall within this category, he will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If they do not, a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity (ARFC@) will be made, and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity is an assessment, based on all relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite his impairments. 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1545(a).

         The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent him or her from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do his past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. Id. Step five requires the court to consider the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience, in order to determine if he or she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The burden of demonstrating that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform is on the Commissioner; and, once that burden is met, the claimant must prove his inability to perform those jobs in order to be found to be disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).

         The analysis involves a further step in cases where the claimant is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Congress amended the Social Security Act in 1997 to provide that a claimant “shall not be considered to be disabled for purposes of this subchapter if alcoholism or drug addiction would (but for this subparagraph) be a contributing factor material to the Commissioner's determination that the individual is disabled.” Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001) (citing Pub. L. No. 104B121, ' 105(a)(1), (b)(1), 110 Stat. 847, 852, 853 (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C) (1997)). Consequently, under the amendment, known as the Contract with America Advancement Act (ACAAA@), if an ALJ determines that a claimant is disabled and that drug or alcohol abuse is involved, the ALJ “must determine whether drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability.” 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1535(b)(1), 416.935(b)(1). The ALJ is required to determine which of the plaintiff's physical and mental limitations that supported the original disability determination would remain a limitation or impairment absent the claimant's drug or alcohol use. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1535(b)(3), 416.935(b)(3). If the plaintiff would no longer be disabled if he stopped using drugs or alcohol, then the substance abuse is considered a “contributing factor material to the determination of [his] disability, ” and he will have failed to meet his burden of showing that he is disabled. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1535(b)(2)(i), 416.935(b)(2)(i); 42 U.S.C. §' 423(d)(2)(C), 1382c(a)(3)(J). The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has stated that the claimant bears the burden of proving that the substance abuse “is not a contributing factor material to his disability determination.” Doughty, 245 F.3d 1274 at 1280, citing Brown v. Apfel, 192 F.3d 492 (5th Cir. 1999) and Mittlestedt v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 847 (8th Cir. 2000).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Glass has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the alleged date of onset through the date of her decision. (Tr. at 37). She first determined that Mr. Glass had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 1, 2010, the alleged date of his onset. (Tr. at 22). At the second step of the analysis, the ALJ found that the plaintiff had severe impairments of GBS with associated polyneuropathy[2] involving his bilateral lower extremities, a bipolar I disorder, an anxiety disorder, alcohol dependence, and a history of seizures. (Tr. at 23.) She further found non-severe impairments of double vision/diplopia. (Id.)

         The ALJ also determined that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 23). The ALJ found Mr. Glass's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms not to be entirely credible. (Tr. at 32). Even so, the ALJ found that the impairments, in combination with the alcohol abuse, are disabling. (Tr. at 25).

         She determined that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a limited range of sedentary work. (Tr. at 25). The ALJ further found that the claimant should be subject to the following limitations: that he can occasionally lift and/or carry ten pounds and frequently lift and/or carry less than ten pounds; he can stand and/or walk in combination, with normal breaks, for at least two hours during an eight-hour workday; he can frequently perform fine and gross manipulations bilaterally; he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs and should never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can frequently balance and stoop and occasionally kneel, crouch, and crawl; he should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, wetness, and working in areas of vibration; he should avoid exposure to industrial hazards including working at unprotected heights, working in close proximity to moving dangerous machinery, the operation of motorized vehicles and equipment, and near large open bodies of water, flame or fire. He can perform simple, routine tasks requiring no more than short, simple instructions and simple work-related decision making with few workplace changes. However, the ALJ determined that, considering all the impairments along with the alcohol abuse, the claimant would be unable to maintain concentration, persistence or pace sufficiently to be able to complete an eight-hour workday and 40-hour work-week on a regular and sustained basis. (Tr. at 25). The ALJ went on to explain that claimant's testimony that he could not concentrate or tolerate stress were credible when he was abusing alcohol, but that the symptoms waned when the claimant was not abusing alcohol. The ALJ went on to discuss that, in the absence of the alcohol abuse, claimant's ability to work improved significantly. (Tr. at 25-26). Similarly, the ALJ noted that Mr. Glass's physical symptoms of tremors and lack of balance dissipated during periods when he was not drinking. (Id.)

         According to the ALJ, Mr. Glass is unable to perform any of his past relevant work and that he was a “younger individual” at the date of alleged onset, he has a high school education, and is able to communicate in English, as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 26). She determined that “transferability of skills is not material to the determination of disability” in this case. (Id.) The ALJ found that, considering Mr. Glass's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity based on the impairments including the substance abuse, there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform. (Tr. at 26).

         The ALJ next found that, if the claimant stopped the substance use, the claimant would continue to have severe impairments, but that the impairments would not meet or equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 27). The ALJ examined the remaining impairments and the degree to which they would limit Mr. Glass's ability to work and found that, absent the alcohol abuse, he would have the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of sedentary work with the following limitations: he can occasionally lift and/or carry ten pounds and frequently lift and/or carry less than ten pounds; he can stand and/or walk in combination, with normal breaks, for at least two hours during an eight-hour workday, and he can sit, with normal breaks, for up to eight hours during an eight-hour workday; he can frequently perform fine and gross manipulations bilaterally; he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs and should never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can frequently balance and stoop and occasionally kneel, crouch, and crawl; he should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, wetness, and working in areas of vibration; he should avoid exposure to industrial hazards including working at unprotected heights, working in close proximity to moving dangerous machinery, the operation of motorized vehicles and equipment, and near large open bodies of water, flame, or fire. He can perform simple, routine tasks requiring no more than short, simple instructions and simple work-related decision-making with few workplace changes; he can have occasional interactions with co-workers and supervisors and no interactions with members of the general public. (Tr. at 30-31). The ALJ found that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that he is capable of performing, such as document preparer, surveillance systems monitor, and table worker. (Tr. at 37). The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that substance abuse disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability because the claimant would not be disabled if he stopped the substance use; accordingly, she found that the claimant is not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Id.)

         Standard of Review

         This court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). 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. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004), quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439-40 (11th Cir. 1997). The court approaches the factual findings of the Commissioner with deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. “The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolov.Fed.Mar.Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the court must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 ...


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