United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana
RULING ON PLAINTIFF'S SOCIAL SECURITY
RICHARD L. BOURGEOIS, JR. JUDGE
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.
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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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
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).
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.
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
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
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
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
16. If Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, there would be
a significant number of jobs in the national economy that he
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
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).
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).
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).
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).
Materiality of Plaintiff's Alcohol Abuse
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 ...