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Kerr v. Colvin

United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania

March 18, 2015

TAIT CHRISTIAN KERR, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION

Donetta W. Ambrose, United States Senior District Judge.

Pending before the court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 7 and 12). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (ECF Nos. 8 and 13). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am denying Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 7) and granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 12).

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"). Plaintiff filed her application alleging she had been disabled since October 1, 1993. (ECF No. 5-5, p. 2). Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Douglas Cohen, held a video hearing on September 13, 2012. (ECF No. 5-2, pp. 38-78). On December 14, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (ECF No. 5-2, pp. 20-32).

After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed the instant action with this court. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 7 and 12). The issues are now ripe for 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). Additionally, 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, however, 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. § 423(d)(1)(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., appx. 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 (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his 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. Substance Abuse Disorder

Plaintiff’s main argument is that the ALJ erred in determining that substance use materially contributed to her disabling condition. (ECF No. 8, pp. 17-25). 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 ALJ should use in determining whether alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of a disability is whether Plaintiff would still be found disabled if he/she stopped drinking alcohol. 20 C.F.R. § 416.935(b)(1).

In making this determination, the ALJ should evaluate which of Plaintiff’s current physical and mental limitations would remain if Plaintiff stopped using alcohol. Id. Then, the ALJ should determine whether any or all of Plaintiff’s remaining limitations would be disabling. Id. If the ALJ determines that Plaintiff’s remaining limitations would not be disabling, then the ALJ should find that the substance use is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability. Id. If the ALJ determines that Plaintiff’s remaining limitations are disabling, then Plaintiff is disabled independent of the substance use, and the ALJ should find that the substance is not a contributing factor material to the determination of disability. Id. According to Emergency Teletype EM-96200 (an internal guideline generated by the Social Security Administration's Office of Disability and sent to all hearing offices on August 30, 1996), “[w]hen it is not possible to separate the mental restrictions ...


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