United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division
Johnnie Carter, applied for disability benefits on January
23, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of September 15,
2009. (Tr. at 11). After conducting a hearing, the
Administrative Law Judge (AALJ) denied his application. (Tr.
at 21). The Appeals Council denied his request for review.
(Tr. at 1). The ALJ's decision now stands as the final
decision of the Commissioner, and Carter has requested
reasons stated below, the Court reverses the ALJ's decision
and remands for further review.
The Commissioner's Decision:
found that Carter had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the amended onset date of January 1, 2013.
(Tr. at 13). The ALJ found, at Step Two of the sequential
five-step analysis, that Carter had the following severe
impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine,
hypertension, bipolar disorder, and history of alcohol abuse.
Three, the ALJ determined that Carter's impairments did
not meet or equal a listed impairment. (Tr. at 14).
Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ determined that
Carter had the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform medium work except that he is
limited to jobs involving simple tasks and simple
instructions. (Tr. at 16). Next, the ALJ relied on the
testimony of a Vocational Expert ("VE") to find
that, based on Carter's age, education, work experience
and RFC, Carter was capable of performing past relevant work.
(Tr. at 21). Based on that determination, the ALJ held that
Carter was not disabled. Id.
Standard of Review
Court's role is to determine whether the
Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial
evidence. Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012 (8th
Cir. 2000). “Substantial evidence” in this
context means less than a preponderance but more than a
scintilla. Slusser v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 923, 925 (8th
Cir. 2009). In other words, it is “enough that a
reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the
ALJ's decision.” Id. (citation omitted).
The Court must consider not only evidence that supports the
Commissioner's decision, but also evidence that supports
a contrary outcome. The Court cannot reverse the decision,
however, “merely because substantial evidence exists
for the opposite decision.” Long v. Chater,
108 F.3d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997) (quoting Johnson v.
Chater, 87 F.3d 1015, 1017 (8th Cir. 1996)).
Carter's Arguments on Appeal
argues that substantial evidence does not support the
ALJ's decision to deny benefits. He contends that: 1) the
ALJ committed reversible error in failing to find
Carter's cervical and thoracic degenerative disc disease,
personality disorder, and organic brain disorder to be severe
impairments; 2) the ALJ erred in his evaluation of medical
opinions; 3) the RFC was not based on substantial evidence;
and 4) the ALJ failed to consider or address Carter's
consistently low Global Assessment of Functioning
(“GAF”) scores. For the following reasons, the
Court finds that the ALJ's RFC determination is not
supported by substantial evidence, and therefore, remand is
bipolar disorder and alcohol abuse, Carter required four
inpatient hospitalizations: February 12-13, 2013; March
12-17, 2013; April 6-9, 2013; and May 21-24, 2013. (Tr. at
652-665, 722, 776-777, 812). He presented to the ER on those
occasions for suicidal ideation, having attempted suicide
numerous times. He exhibited severe depression, delusions,
hopelessness and despair over relationship issues, and severe
anger. (Tr. at 675). At intake in May 2013, he had a blunted
affect with homicidal ideation, visual hallucinations, and
limited insight and judgment. (Tr. at 792-3). Carter reported
that he had frequent anger episodes that cost him jobs and
friends. He lost at least one job for not getting along with
supervisors. (Tr. at 43).
spite of these repeated hospital stays, the ALJ opined that
Carter had “experienced no episodes of decompensation
of extended duration, ” and therefore, only had mild
mental limitations. (Tr. at 15). The ALJ reasoned that
Carter's mental impairments improved when he got sober.
Id. There is no further discussion by the ALJ of his
alcohol dependency, although it is listed as a severe
regulations require an ALJ to determine whether a
claimant's “drug addiction or alcoholism is a
contributing factor material to the determination of
disability.” Jackson v Apfel, 162 F.3d 533,
537 (8th Cir. 1998). The key factor is “whether [the
Commissioner] would still find [a claimant] disabled if he
stopped using drugs or alcohol.” Id. The ALJ
observed that since Carter stopped drinking in March 2014, he
still has mood swings, bouts of depression, and difficulty
getting along with others. (Tr. at 17). The ongoing
psychiatric symptoms in the absence of alcohol suggest that
alcohol is not a “contributing factor” to
disability; that is, removing alcohol would not remove the
depression, suicidal ...