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Brenda Jayne Dunn v. Michael J. Astrue

June 28, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Bissoon*fn1



For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 9) will be denied, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) will be granted.

Brenda Jayne Dunn ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or "Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f ("Act").

The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied benefits to Plaintiff following two separate administrative hearings on October 29, 2008, and March 4, 2010. (R. at 5, 44).*fn2

Plaintiff then filed a Complaint in this Court on November 23, 2010. (ECF No. 2).

Defendant filed his Answer on January 31, 2011. (ECF No. 3). Cross Motions for Summary Judgment followed. (ECF Nos. 9, 13).

Following the required 5 step analysis,*fn3 the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had medically determinable severe impairments in the way of bipolar disorder, cocaine abuse, opioid abuse, alcohol abuse, and substance induced mood disorder. (R. at 118). Plaintiff was determined to be disabled because of her drug and alcohol abuse ("DAA"). However, in the absence of DAA, she had the functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels not involving detailed or complex tasks, a high stress work environment, significant decision making, direct interaction with the public, or more than occasional interaction with co-workers, and further limited to work that was routine in nature. (R. at 121). Consistent with the testimony of vocational experts, Plaintiff qualified for a significant number of jobs in existence in the national economy. (R. at 38-40, 85-87, 125-26).

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to correctly analyze the impact of DAA upon her ability to work, failed to adequately discuss and weigh the medical notes of Harshad Patel, M.D. and Fred Gallo, Ph.D., and -- as a result of these failures -- did not create an RFC assessment or hypothetical question that adequately accommodated all of Plaintiff's credibly established functional limitations. (ECF No. 10 at 14-22).

With respect to DAA, the Act states that "an individual shall not be considered to be disabled . . . if alcoholism or drug addiction would . . . be a contributing factor material to the Commissioner's determination that the individual is disabled." Ambrosini v. Astrue, 727 F. Supp.2d 414, 428 (W.D. Pa. 2010) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(c), 1382c(a)(3)(J)). According to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1535 and 416.935, the "key factor" in making the above determination is whether a claimant would continue to be disabled if they ceased using drugs and/or alcohol. See also Nomes v. Astrue, 155 Soc. Sec. Rep. Serv. 860, 2010 WL 3155507, *7-8 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 3, 2010) (citation to quoted source omitted). Further, "a materiality finding must be based on medical evidence, and not simply on pure speculation about the effects that drug and alcohol abuse have on a claimant's ability to work." Ambrosini, 727 F. Supp.2d at 430 (citing Sklenar v. Barnhart, 195 F. Supp.2d 696, 699-706 (W.D. Pa. 2002)).

It is undisputed that, throughout the case record, there is significant evidence of Plaintiff's difficulties with DAA. However, Plaintiff contends that apart from this DAA, her organic mental disorders were sufficiently limiting that she was incapable of holding full time employment and that the ALJ did not properly distinguish between limitations attributable to her DAA and limitations attributable to her other disorders. While the ALJ did not explicitly provide specific limitations attributable to Plaintiff's DAA, he analyzed -- at length -- the effects of Plaintiff's DAA on her functional capacity and deduced what limitations would exist if Plaintiff were to be clean and sober.

It is significant to note -- and the record supports -- the ALJ's contention that DAA was present during, if not the immediate cause of, Plaintiff's most recent hospitalizations.

(R. at 314-15, 319-21, 327-28, 380-81, 539, 541). While being treated at Sharon Regional Behavioral Health services, Plaintiff's prognosis was considered to be poor because of her DAA, and that with sustained treatment she would see improvement. (R. at 484, 489-94, 521). Plaintiff even ...

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