United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
HANLY A. INGRAM, District Judge.
Plaintiff, Gary Brannon Halcomb, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) to obtain judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for supplemental security income ("SSI"). The parties each filed a notice of consent to the referral of this matter to a magistrate judge. D.E. 15; D.E. 16. Accordingly, this matter was referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of a final judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. D.E. 17. The Court, having reviewed the record and for the reasons stated herein, DENIES Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (D.E. 12) and GRANTS the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (D.E. 13).
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for supplemental security income on November 14, 2011, alleging disability beginning on January 15, 2008. D.E. 9-3 at 9. The claim was denied initially on February 23, 2012, and upon reconsideration on May 2, 2012. At the Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was conducted before Administrative Law Judge Todd Spangler (ALJ) on March 6, 2013. Id. at 30-57. Plaintiff was thirty years old on the alleged onset date. D.E. 9-4 at 30. He had past relevant work as the sole proprietor of an automobile collision repair shop, but was not working at the time of the hearing. D.E. 9-3 at 34. Plaintiff had at least a high school education and communicated in English. Id. at 18. During the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and impartial vocational expert Julian M. Nadolsky (VE). Id. at 30.
Plaintiff filed two prior applications in both 2008 and 2010 which were denied. See D.E. 9-3 at 61; D.E. 9-4 at 7. The most recent of these claims was denied by decision dated July 6, 2011. D.E. 9-4 at 7-20. The claim was denied review by the Appeals Council and the decision was subsequently affirmed on review by a federal court. Halcomb v. Social Security Administration, 6:11-CV-332-HRW (E.D. Ky. 2011).
In evaluating a claim of disability, an ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. First, if a claimant is working at a substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, if a claimant does not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limit her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, then she does not have a severe impairment and is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, if a claimant's impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, she is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Before the fourth step is conducted, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity, which calculates her ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Fourth, if a claimant's impairments do not prevent her from doing past relevant work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). Fifth, if a claimant's impairments (considering her residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work) prevent her from doing other work that exists in the national economy, then she is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).
Additionally, for the purposes of eligibility for supplemental security income, a claimant is not considered disabled "if alcoholism or drug addiction would...be a contributing factor material to" the determination that the claimant is disabled. 42. U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(J). Thus, in cases where substance abuse is of record, the pertinent inquiry is which limitations would remain absent substance abuse. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.935(b)(1) (The key factor we will examine in determining whether drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability is whether we would still find you disabled if you stopped using drugs or alcohol.").
In this case, at Step 1, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 14, 2011 (the date of the instant application). D.E. 9-3 at 12. At Step 2, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had the following severe impairments imposing more than minimal work-related limitations: "anxiety disorder, panic disorder, depressive disorder, history of alcohol abuse/dependence in early remission by report, and anxiolytic abuse." Id. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff's complaints of joint and muscle pain/arthritis caused no more than minimal work related limitations and thus were "non-severe." Id. At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I. Id. at 17. The ALJ found, when including the substance abuse disorders, Plaintiff had a residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all levels of exertion but with marked ability to relate to coworkers, deal with the public, deal with work stresses, relate predictably in social situations, and demonstrate reliability. Id. at 18. At Step 4, the ALJ found that when including the substance abuse disorders, Plaintiff could not perform past relevant work. Id. at 18-19. At Step Five, the ALJ found that, based on the VE's testimony and Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, including the substance abuse disorders, there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id. at 19. Therefore, when including the substance abuse disorders, the ALJ found the Plaintiff to be disabled. Id.
Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.935, the ALJ then evaluated whether Plaintiff's substance abuse disorders are a contributing factor material to this disability finding. Id. Without the substance abuse, the ALJ found that Plaintiff would continue to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Id. Next, without the substance abuse, the ALJ found Plaintiff would not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I. Id. The ALJ then determined that without the substance abuse, Plaintiff would have a residual functional capacity to perform work at all levels of exertion except he would be limited to 1, 2, and 3 step instructions in an object focused non-public setting, with no more than occasional changes in the work setting or routine. Id. at 21. Further, Plaintiff would be limited to no high-speed production work involving quotas, with direct and non-confrontational supervision. Id. Based on this residual functional capacity, without the substance abuse, the ALJ determined that there would be a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, thus finding he was not disabled. Id. at 22-23. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on May 27, 2014, and Plaintiff now seeks judicial review in this Court.
Under the Social Security Act, a "disability" is defined as "the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity' because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment of at least one year's expected duration." Cruse v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 502 F.3d 532, 539 (6th Cir. 2007). Judicial review of the denial of a claim for Social Security benefits is limited to determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). "Substantial evidence" is "more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). The substantial evidence standard "presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which decision makers can go either way, without interference from the court." Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) ( en banc ) (quotes and citations omitted).
In determining the existence of substantial evidence, courts must examine the record as a whole. Id. (citing Kirk v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 957 (1983)). However, courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in evidence, or make credibility determinations. Id. (citations omitted); see also Bradley v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 862 F.2d 1224, 1228 (6th Cir. 1988). Rather, if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently, and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion. See Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999); see also Casey v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 1233 (6th Cir. 1993); Kinsella v. Schweiker, 708 F.2d 1058, 1059 (6th Cir. 1983); Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545.
Plaintiff has previously applied for disability benefits. Plaintiff's June 2, 2010 application for disability insurance benefits was denied by a decision of an ALJ on July 6, 2011. D.E. 9-4 at 7-20. In that decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe impairments were alcohol dependency, alcohol induced mood disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, rule out social disorder, and generalized arthritis. Id. at 10. The ALJ further found that if Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, he would have the residual functional capacity to perform medium work limited to simple, 1-2 step tasks that are object focused in a non-public work setting and no more than occasional changes in the work setting or routine. Id. at 15-16. Additionally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was limited to jobs that would not involve high end quotas, and he must have direct and non-confrontational supervision. Id. at 16. Based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and his residual functional capacity without substance abuse, the ALJ found there would be a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. Id. at 19. The appeals council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the decision was subsequently affirmed on review by a federal court. Halcomb v. Social Security Administration, 6:11-CV-332-HRW (E.D. Ky. 2011). Therefore, it became the final and binding decision of the Commissioner.
Thereafter, on November 14, 2011, Plaintiff filed this application for supplemental security income, initially alleging an onset disability date of January 15, 2008. D.E. 9-4 at 30. Sixth Circuit precedent holds that, absent evidence of an improvement in Plaintiff's condition, a subsequent ALJ is bound by the findings of the previous ALJ. Drummond v. Commissioner of Social Security, 126 F.3d 837, 842 (6th Cir. 1997). Thus, the ALJ in the current case was bound by the findings in the July 6, 2011 decision, absent a showing of an improvement in Plaintiff's condition. In the case at bar, the ALJ's decision contained three differences from the previous ALJ's decision. First, in the the current case, the ALJ deviated from the prior decision by finding that Plaintiff did not have the severe impairment of generalized arthritis. D.E. 9-3 at 12. Thus, in the present case, the ALJ's RFC contained no exertional limitations (as opposed to finding medium work limitations). Id. at 21. Second, in the current case, the ALJ added the additional severe impairment of anxiolytic abuse. Id. at 12. Finally, the ALJ's RFC differed from the prior RFC in that it provided that Plaintiff would be "limited to 1, 2, 3 step instructions[.]" Id. at 21. The previous RFC provided that Plaintiff would be limited to "1-2 step tasks." D.E. 9-4 at 16.
1. The ALJ's Decision is Supported by Substantial Evidence
Plaintiff's first argument is that the ALJ's decision that he was not disabled is not supported by substantial evidence. D.E. 12-1 at 7. Plaintiff alleges that the objective medical evidence "unequivocally documents that the Plaintiff has several severe conditions which are disabling." Id. Plaintiff references the opinions of three evaluators in the record and concludes that the "ALJ simply chose to ignore the [Plaintiff's] own testimony and that of all the psychological evidence to make the determination that his condition would improve with the alcohol use." Id. at 8. The Commissioner asserts that Plaintiff's arguments fail to address the basis for the ALJ's decision, anxiolytic abuse, thus they are without merit. D.E. 13 at 4.
At no point in this argument does Plaintiff reference the prior denials of Plaintiff's disability applications. See D.E. 12-1 at 7-8. The ALJ was bound by the previous findings of disability, absent evidence of an improvement in Plaintiff's condition. See Drummond v. Commissioner of Social Security, 126 F.3d 837, 842 (6th Cir. 1997). A comparison of the current ALJ's decision to previous decisions illustrates several differences. However, Plaintiff does not argue that these departures warrant any relief and therefore the Court does not consider them. See Hollon ex rel. Hollon v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 447 F.3d 477, 491 (6th Cir. 2006) (declining to formulate arguments on claimant's behalf); D.E. 11 at 3 ("The Court will consider only the arguments listed and will not formulate arguments on the parties' behalf.")
Here, Plaintiff's primary argument is that there is not substantial evidence to support the ALJ's finding that he would not be disabled if he stopped alcohol abuse. Plaintiff points out that he testified that he had been sober since February 2012, and that "his psychological problems have not improved with his cessation of drinking." D.E. 12-1 at 8. He asserts that the records from Cumberland River Comprehensive Care Center demonstrate that, even with the selfreported cessation of alcohol consumption, his problems have not improved. Id. Moreover, he argues that Spangler's February 11, ...