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McGill v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 8, 2014

FRANK O. McGILL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

OPINION and ORDER OF COURT

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

SYNOPSIS

Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 9 and 11). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (Docket Nos. 10 and 12). Plaintiff also filed a Reply Brief. (Docket No. 13). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, Defendant's Motion (Docket No. 11) is granted and Plaintiff's Motion (Docket No. 9) is denied.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on or about July 15, 2010. (R. 11, 162-66, 204). In his application, he alleged that since December 15, 2008, he had been disabled due to stroke and psychosis. (R. 162-66, 204). Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") David F. Brash held a hearing on November 18, 2011, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (R. 34-78). Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on his own behalf. Id . A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. Id . In a decision dated February 3, 2012 (R. 11-29), the ALJ found that no jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (R. 21-22). The ALJ further found, however, that Plaintiff's substance abuse disorder was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability because Plaintiff would not be disabled if he stopped the substance use. (R. 23-29). Because the substance use disorder was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (R. 28). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's determination by the Appeals Council, and, on July 19, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-4). Having exhausted all of his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 9 and 11). The issues are now ripe for my review.

II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Allen v. Bowen , 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Ventura v. Shalala , 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Determining whether substantial evidence exists is "not merely a quantitative exercise." Gilliland v. Heckler , 786 F.2d 178, 183 (3d Cir. 1986) (citing Kent v. Schweiker , 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). "A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the secretary ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence - particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians)." Id . The Commissioner's findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano , 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel , 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel , 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.

To be eligible for social security benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate that he cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(A); Brewster v. Heckler , 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).

The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to her previous employment (steps 1-4). Dobrowolsky , 606 F.2d at 406. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can engage in alternative substantial gainful activity (step 5). Id.

A district court, after reviewing the entire record, may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision with or without remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Podedworny v. Harris , 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).

B. WHETHER SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE SUPPORTS THE ALJ'S DECISION THAT PLAINTIFF IS NOT ENTITLED TO DISABILITY BENEFITS

Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's determination that alcohol use materially contributed to his disabling condition. Pl.'s Br. [ECF No. 10] at 12-21. On March 29, 1996, Congress passed the Contract with America Advancement Act of 1996 which, in part, amended the SSA to preclude recovery of benefits by a person whose alcoholism or drug addiction contributes to his or her disabling condition. See Pub. L. No. 104-121, §§ 105(a)(1), (b)(1), 110 Stat. 847, 852-53 (1996) (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C) (1998)); see also Torres v. Chater , 125 F.3d 166, 169 (3d Cir. 1997). The amendment provides that "an individual shall not be considered to be disabled... if alcoholism or drug addiction would (but for this subparagraph) be a contributing factor material to the determination that the individual is disabled." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C). The "key factor" that the ...


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