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Ryan v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division.

June 27, 2014

MICHAEL RYAN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


JAMES R. MARSCHEWSKI, Chirf Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying his claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title II of the Social Security Act (Act), 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In this judicial review, the court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the Commissioner's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

I. Procedural Background:

The plaintiff filed his application for DIB and SSI on June 14, 2010 alleging an onset date of October 21, 2009, due to plaintiff's lumbar back pain and depression. (T. 204). Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing, which was held on August 30, 2011. Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel.

At the time of the administrative hearing, plaintiff was 52 years of age, possessed a high school education, and was able to communicate in English. (T. 22). The plaintiff has past relevant work ("PRW") experience as a warehouse worker, mold cleaner, and production assembler. (T. 68).

On January 27, 2012, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") concluded that the plaintiff had the following severe impairments if he stopped the substance use: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status-post surgery; a left clavicle fracture; hypertension; a major depressive disorder; and a personality disorder. (T. 18). The ALJ concluded that if he stopped the substance abuse, although severe, the plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any Appendix 1 listing. (T. 18). The ALJ found that plaintiff maintained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform unskilled, light work. (T. 19). With the assistance of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined plaintiff could perform other work as an assembler, machine tender, and inspector. (T. 23).

II. Applicable Law:

The court's role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough so that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's decision. Id. "Our review extends beyond examining the record to find substantial evidence in support of the ALJ's decision; we also consider evidence in the record that fairly detracts from that decision." Id. As long as there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's decision, the court may not reverse the decision simply because substantial evidence exists in the record to support a contrary outcome, or because the court would have decided the case differently. Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). If the court finds it possible "to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence, and one of those positions represents the Secretary's findings, the court must affirm the decision of the Secretary." Cox, 495 F.3d at 617 (internal quotation and alteration omitted).

It is well-established that a claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden of proving his disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one year and that prevents him from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); see 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines "physical or mental impairment" as "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382(3)(c). A plaintiff must show that his disability, not simply his impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months. Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 594 (8th Cir. 1993).

The Commissioner's regulations require him to apply a five-step sequential evaluation process to each claim for disability benefits: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since filing his claim; (2) whether the claimant has a severe physical and/or mental impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment(s) meet or equal an impairment in the listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevent the claimant from doing past relevant work; and, (5) whether the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy given his age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f)(2003). Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the plaintiff's age, education, and work experience in light of his or her residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520, 416.920 (2003).

III. Discussion:

The court has reviewed the Briefs filed by the Parties, the Transcript of the proceedings before the Commission, including a review of the hearing before the ALJ, the medical records, and relevant administrative records and finds the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.

A. Drug and Alcohol Abuse

In the case of alcoholism and drug addiction, an ALJ must first determine if a claimant's symptoms, regardless of cause, constitute disability. See Brueggemann v. Barnhart, 348 F.3d 689, 694 (8th Cir.2003) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1535, 416.935). If the ALJ finds a disability and evidence of substance abuse, the next step is to determine whether those disabilities would exist in the absence of the substance abuse. Id. at 694-95. When a claimant is actively abusing ...

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