Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Thomas v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

February 28, 2018

HENRY CHESTER THOMAS
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, ET AL.

          RULING ON PLAINTIFF'S SOCIAL SECURITY APPEAL

          RICHARD L. BOURGEOIS, JR. JUDGE

         Henry Chester Thomas (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act. (R. Doc. 1). Having found all of the procedural prerequisites met (Tr. 1-6), the Court has properly reviewed Plaintiff's appeal. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 20 C.F.R. § 404.981 (“The Appeals Council's decision, or the decision of the administrative law judge if the request for review is denied, is binding unless you… file an action in Federal district court…”). For the reasons given below, the Court ORDERS that the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED and Plaintiff's appeal is DISMISSED with prejudice.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits (Tr. 197-203) and supplemental security income (Tr. 204-209) on May 9, 2012 and May 21, 2012, respectively, alleging that he became disabled on March 1, 2012 because of a disabling condition, namely unstable angina, coronary disease, bradycardia, and a congenital disease (Tr. 197-209, 243). Plaintiff's application was initially denied by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), who first held an administrative hearing (Tr. 60-73) before issuing an unfavorable decision on July 16, 2013. (Tr. 94-110). Plaintiff's first request for review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 144-145) was granted by the Appeals Council on September 24, 2014. (Tr. 111-113). A second hearing was held on April 20, 2015. (Tr. 38-59). A second unfavorable opinion was issued on July 1, 2015. (Tr. 10-37). Plaintiff's September 2, 2015 request for review of the second decision was denied by the Appeals Council on October 17, 2015. (Tr. 2-6). The ALJ's decision rested as the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to an inquiry into whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings of the Commissioner and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Falco v. Shalala, 27 F.3d 160, 162 (5th Cir. 1994); Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence has been defined as “‘more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. of N.Y. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938) (defining “substantial evidence” in the context of the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 160(e)). The Fifth Circuit has further held that substantial evidence “must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be established, but no substantial evidence will be found only where there is a conspicuous absence of credible choices or no contrary medical evidence.” Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983) (quotations omitted). Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner “and not the courts to resolve.” Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990). The Court may not reweigh the evidence, try the case de novo, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner even if it finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. See, e.g., Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434 (5th Cir. 1994) (“This is so because substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but more than a scintilla.”); Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. 1988) (“In applying the substantial evidence standard, we must carefully scrutinize the record to determine if, in fact, such evidence is present; at the same time, however, we may neither reweigh the evidence in the record nor substitute our judgment for the Secretary's.”); Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988) (same).

         If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, then it is conclusive and must be upheld. Estate of Morris v. Shalala, 207 F.3d 744, 745 (5th Cir. 2000). If, on the other hand, the Commissioner fails to apply the correct legal standards, or fails to provide a reviewing court with a sufficient basis to determine that the correct legal principles were followed, it is grounds for reversal. Bradley v. Bowen, 809 F.2d 1054, 1057 (5th Cir. 1987).

         III. ALJ'S DETERMINATION

         In determining disability, the Commissioner (through an ALJ) works through a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The burden rests upon the claimant throughout the first four steps of this five-step process to prove disability. If the claimant is successful in sustaining his or her burden at each of the first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Muse v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 785, 789 (5th Cir. 1991) (explaining the five-step process). First, the claimant must prove he or she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant must prove his or her impairment is “severe” in that it “significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities…” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At step three, the ALJ must conclude the claimant is disabled if he or she proves that his or her impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the impairments contained in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d) (step three of sequential process); 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app'x 1 (Listing of Impairments). Fourth, the claimant bears the burden of proving he or she is incapable of meeting the physical and mental demands of his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

         If the claimant is successful at all four of the preceding steps then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education and past work experience, that he or she is capable of performing other work. 20 C.F.R § 404.1520(g)(1). If the Commissioner proves other work exists which the claimant can perform, the claimant is given the chance to prove that he or she cannot, in fact, perform that work. Muse, 925 F.2d at 789.

         Here, the ALJ made the following determinations:

1. Plaintiff had met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017.
2. Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 1, 2012.
3. Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: status post CABG with stenting and stable angina; major depressive disorder; substance abuse.
4. Plaintiff did not meet or medically equal any listed impairment.
5. Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work, except he would never be able to interact with the general public, coworkers, and supervisors, and he may perform only low-stress work (no production-based, quota drive work activity).
6. Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work.
7. Plaintiff was a younger individual on the alleged disability onset date.
8. Plaintiff has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English.
9. Plaintiff's job skills do not transfer to other occupations within the residual functional capacity outlined by the ALJ.
10. There are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform considering his age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity.
11. If Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, the remaining limitations would cause more than a minimal impact on his ability to perform basic work activities such that he would continue to suffer from severe impairments.
12. If Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, he would not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a listed impairment.
13. If Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, he would have the residual functional capacity to perform light work, except that he could occasionally interact with the general public, coworkers, and supervisors, and the work must be low stress (i.e., not subject to production based, quota-driven work activity.
14. If the Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, he would continue to be unable to perform past relevant work.
15. Transferability of job skills is not relevant because Plaintiff is not disabled whether or not he has transferable job skills.
16. If Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, there would be a significant number of jobs in the national economy that he could perform.
17. The substance abuse disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability because he would not be disabled if he stopped the substance abuse, and accordingly, Plaintiff was not disabled at any point from the alleged onset date through the date of the ALJ's decision.

(Tr. 16-31).

         IV.DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff first argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's substance abuse was material to the determination of his disability. (R. Doc. 9 at 4). In support of this contention, Plaintiff suggests that substantial evidence does not support a finding that Plaintiff's substance abuse is severe or material. (R. Doc. 9 at 6-7). Plaintiff also argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff has a medically determinable substance abuse disorder. (R. Doc. 9 at 7). The Commissioner responds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding of the existence of substance abuse, and that the ALJ followed the proper processes in analyzing the materiality of Plaintiff's substance abuse. (R. Doc. 11 at 6-10).

         Plaintiff's second argument is that he was not properly afforded the opportunity to question the medical expert at the administrative hearing. (R. Doc. 9 at 10-11). The Plaintiff suggests that he was not properly informed of his right to question the expert, especially given his “relatively undereducated and mentally impaired” status. (R. Doc. 9 at 11). The Plaintiff also argues that his rights at the administrative hearing were not properly explained to him. (R. Doc. 9 at 10). In response, the Commissioner suggests that there is no due process entitlement or policy mandating how and when cross-examination must occur, and, even if the ALJ erred, Plaintiff has not establish any resulting prejudice by way of different outcome. (R. Doc. 9 at 10-11).

         Plaintiff's third argument is that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's RFC assessment. (R. Doc. 9 at 12). In support of this argument, Plaintiff contends that his purported “moderate” limitations in social functioning and concentration, persistence, and/or pace were not incorporated into the ALJ's RFC assessment such that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's assessment. (R. Doc. 9 at 12-13). The Commissioner responds that Plaintiff improperly equates the Step 2 and 3 findings with the RFC assessment. (R. Doc. 11 at 12). The Commissioner also suggests that Plaintiff has not shown that he is unable to sustain work due to mental problems notwithstanding alcohol abuse. (R. Doc. 11 at 13).

         Next, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to follow SSR 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304 (Oct. 25, 2017), when he assessed Plaintiff's credibility with regard to his symptoms. (R. Doc. 9 at 17-18). Plaintiff also suggests that substantial evidence does not support a causal link between Plaintiff's alcohol abuse and his mental limitations or physical conditions. (R. Doc. 9 at 16-17). The Commissioner argues that SSR 16-3p was not in effect at the time of the ALJ's decision and is not retroactive such that it has no application to the issues herein. (R. Doc. 11 at 14).

         A. Materiality of Plaintiff's Alcohol Abuse

         42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C) provides that “[a]n individual shall not be considered to be disabled for purposes of this subchapter if alcoholism or drug addiction would (but for this subparagraph) be a contributing factor material to the Commissioner's determination that the individual is disabled.” In evaluating cases involving drug addiction and alcoholism (DAA), SSR 13-2p, 2013 WL 621536 (Feb. 20, 2013), provides detailed guidance on the policies and procedures the Commissioner should employ in rendering his decision. SSR 13-2p, in pertinent part, requires that an ALJ “[a]s in all DAA materiality determinations, apply the appropriate sequential evaluation process twice. First, apply the sequential evaluation process to show how the claimant is disabled. Then, apply the sequential evaluation process a second time to document materiality and deny the claim.” The ALJ's decision follows this procedure. First, the ALJ applied the sequential evaluation process in light of Plaintiff's substance abuse, concluding that there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.