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Carter v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

May 3, 2017



         I. Introduction:

         Plaintiff, 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 judicial review.

         For the reasons stated below, the Court[1] reverses the ALJ's decision and remands for further review.

         II. The Commissioner's Decision:

         The ALJ 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. Id.

         At Step 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.

         III. Discussion:

         A. Standard of Review

         The 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)).

         B. Carter's Arguments on Appeal

         Carter 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 proper.

         Due to 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).

         In 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 impairment.

         The 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 ...

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