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Jones v. Berryhill

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

January 24, 2018

JENNIFER L. JONES, Claimant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         Claimant, Jennifer L. Jones, commenced this action on April 11, 2017, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner, affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and thereby denying her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. For the reasons stated herein, the court finds that the Commissioner's ruling is due to be affirmed.

         The court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of review is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and whether correct legal standards were applied. See Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253 (11th Cir. 1983).

         The ALJ found that claimant had the severe impairments of bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and substance abuse.[1] He also found that, considering all of claimant's impairments, including the substance abuse disorder, claimant retained the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but that she would be unable to sustain an eight-hour work day or forty-hour work week due to non-exertional impairments of “inattention and decompensation in the workplace.”[2] Even so, the ALJ concluded that, if claimant stopped the substance use, she

would have no exertional limitations and would have the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations. She is limited to simple, 1 to 2-step tasks and is limited to work with no production quotas. She should work with a few familiar co-workers and will perform best in a separate workstation with no coordination with others. She should have no more than occasional supervision. She will require normal work breaks during the day and may have 1 absence from work per month.

Tr. 26. With that residual functional capacity, claimant would be unable to perform her past relevant work, but she would be able to perform a significant number of other jobs existing in the national economy.[3] Based upon all of those findings, the ALJ's final conclusion was that:

The substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability because the claimant would not be disabled if she stopped the substance use (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 404.1535). Because the substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, the claimant has not been disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time from the alleged onset date through the date of this decision.

Tr. 31.

         Claimant contends that the Commissioner's decision is neither supported by substantial evidence nor in accordance with applicable legal standards. Specifically, claimant asserts that the ALJ improperly evaluated her substance abuse, improperly found that Kay Knowlton, Ph.D., LPC, was not an acceptable medical source, and improperly gave little weight to the opinion of claimant's treating physician. Upon review of the record, the court concludes that claimant's contentions are without merit.

         A. Substance Abuse

         The Social Security Act provides, in relevant part, that “[a]n individual 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C) (alteration supplied). The Commissioner's regulations provide the following framework for evaluating a claimant's disability status in light of that statutory provision:

(a) General. If we find that you are disabled and have medical evidence of your drug addiction or alcoholism, we must determine whether your drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability.
(b) Process we will follow when we have medical evidence of your drug addiction or alcoholism.
(1) The key factor we will examine in determining whether drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability is whether we would still find you disabled if you stopped using drugs or alcohol.
(2) In making this determination, we will evaluate which of your current physical and mental limitations, upon which we based our current disability determination, would remain if you stopped using drugs or alcohol and then determine whether any or all of your remaining limitations would be disabling.
(i) If we determine that your remaining limitations would not be disabling, we will find that your drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability.
(ii) If we determine that your remaining limitations are disabling, you are disabled independent of your drug addiction or alcoholism and we will find that your drug addiction or alcoholism is not a contributing factor material to the determination of disability.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1535 (emphasis supplied).

         Claimant does not contest the ALJ's use of this regulatory framework. Instead, she asserts that the ALJ failed to rely upon Social Security Ruling 13-2p in evaluating whether there was, in fact, medical evidence of her drug addiction or alcoholism.[4]

         Social Security Ruling 13-2p was issued to “explain [the Commissioner's] policies for how we consider whether ‘drug addiction and alcoholism' (DAA) is material to our determination of disability . . . .” SSR 13-2p, 2013 WL 621536 (Feb. 20, 2013), at *1 (alteration supplied). The term “DAA” is defined as “Substance Use Disorders, ” or “Substance Dependence or Substance Abuse as defined in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association.” Id. at *3. “Substance Use Disorders are diagnosed in part by the presence of maladaptive use of alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription medications, and toxic substances (such as inhalants).” Id. The substance abuse must be regular and continued: “[a] claimant's occasional ...


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