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Gibson v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 21, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

I. Synopsis

Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. ECF Nos. [10] (Plaintiff) and [14] (Defendant). Both parties filed Briefs in support of their Motions. ECF Nos. [11] (Plaintiff) and [15] (Defendant). The issues are now ripe for review. After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion as set forth below, Defendant's Motion, ECF No. [14], is granted and Plaintiff's Motion, ECF No. [10] is denied.

II. Background

Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for disability benefits pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"). Plaintiff alleges disability beginning April 1, 2007. ECF No. 11, 2. After Plaintiff's application was denied initially, he requested that his application be reviewed by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Id. After a hearing, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claims in an unfavorable decision on August 21, 2009. Id. After Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied, on March 24, 2010, Plaintiff filed a civil action in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania seeking judicial review of the decision denying him benefits. Id. On September 21, 2010, the District Court remanded the case for further proceedings. Id. In accordance with the Court's Order, on October 15, 2010, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's August 2009 decision and remanded Plaintiff's claims for further proceedings. Id. On October 5, 2011, the ALJ held a second administrative hearing, and he again denied Plaintiff's claims on December 2, 2011. Id. When Plaintiff requested review of the December 2011 decision, the Appeals Council remanded the case to a different ALJ. ECF No. 11, 2. Subsequently, two hearings were held before a new ALJ. Id. at 3. The October 22, 2013 hearing was continued to obtain additional medical records. ECF No. 6-13, 32-39. At the January 28, 2014 hearing, the Plaintiff, a psychological expert, and a vocational expert testified. Id. at 40. On May 22, 2014, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision finding Plaintiff disabled as of March 8, 2012. ECF No. 6-11, 42. Prior to March 8, 2012, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled because his substance abuse was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability thus precluding an award of benefits prior to that date. Id. at 40. Because Plaintiff's disability date of March 8, 2012 occurred after his date last insured, the ALJ awarded Plaintiff supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits only.[1] Id. at 26.

III. 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 "[m]ore 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). While 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, a plaintiff must demonstrate that she 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).

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), 416.920(b). 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 her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing her past relevant work, whether she can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. A Claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that she 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. Plaintiff's Motion

1. The ALJ's Analysis Regarding Substance Abuse

Plaintiff's primary argument is that the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff's substance abuse materially contributed to his disabling condition prior to March 8, 2012.[2] ECF No. 11, 13-20. On March 29, 1996, Congress passed the Contract with America Advancement Act of 1996 which, in part, amended the Social Security Act to preclude recovery of benefits by a person whose alcoholism or drug addiction contributes to his or her disabling condition. See Pub. L. No. 104-21, §§ 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 ...

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