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Miles v. Astrue

September 7, 2009

DAVID MILES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

1. Plaintiff David Miles challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that he is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges that he has been disabled since October 30, 2001 due to a back impairment and depression.*fn1 Plaintiff contends that his impairments render him unable to work. He therefore asserts that he is entitled to disability benefits under the Act.

2. Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance benefits ("DIB") on October 30, 2001. (R. at 47.*fn2 ) His application was denied initially, after which he requested a hearing before an ALJ. (R. at 47.) That hearing took place on January 12, 2004. The ALJ considered Plaintiff's case de novo, and on March 24, 2005, issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits. On August 22, 2007, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff filed the current civil action challenging Defendant's final decision on October 18, 2007.*fn3

3. The parties subsequently filed Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings.*fn4 After full briefing, this Court deemed oral argument unnecessary and took the motions under advisement on April 23, 2008. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is granted and Plaintiff's motion is denied.

4. A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or there has been a legal error. See Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983); Marcus v. Califano, 615 F.2d 23, 27 (2d Cir. 1979). Substantial evidence is that which amounts to "more than a mere scintilla," and it has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed. 2d 842 (1971). Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. See Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).

5. "To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining the evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." Williams on Behalf of Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be sustained "even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's]." Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F. Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). In other words, this Court must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable deference, and will not substitute "its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably have reached a different result upon a de novo review." Valente v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).

6. The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The United States Supreme Court recognized the validity of this analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L.Ed. 2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.

7. This five-step process is detailed below:

First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the [Commissioner] presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a "listed" impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam) (quotations in original); see also Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

8. While the claimant has the burden of proof as to the first four steps, the Commissioner has the burden of proof on the fifth and final step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5; Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984). The final step of this inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his physical ability, age, education, and work experience. Second, the Commissioner must determine whether jobs exist in the national economy that a person having the claimant's qualifications could perform. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed. 2d 66 (1983).

9. In this case, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 30, 2001 (R. at 26); (2) Plaintiff's alcohol dependence, cocaine dependence, marijuana abuse, depressive disorder, and back impairments are "severe" impairments within the meaning of the Act (R. at 27, 40*fn5 ); (3) Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal an impairment listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 404 (R. at 27); (4) Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform less than a full range of light work, and essentially the full range of sedentary work, with certain restrictions (R. at 37-38*fn6 ); and (5) Plaintiff is unable to perform any of his past relevant work (R. at 38), but based on his age, education, work experience, and RFC, Plaintiff is capable of performing less than a full range of light work and a full range of sedentary work (R. at 40). The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled.

10. Plaintiff asserts a number of challenges to the ALJ's decision. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff's alcoholism materially contributed to his disability. (Pl.'s Reply, pp. 2-4.*fn7 ) Specifically, Plaintiff contends that his alcoholism preceded his mental problems and, therefore, his alcohol use had no effect on his mental condition.

Under the Regulations, "[t]he key factor . . . in determining whether drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability is whether [the plaintiff would be] disabled if [they] stopped using drugs or alcohol." 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1535(b)(1). Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff would not be disabled in the absence of substance abuse. (R. at 39.) Plaintiff offers no evidence to set aside this determination, but instead, conclusorily states that his mental conditions pre-existed his alcoholism. (Pl.'s Reply, p. 4.) Further, Plaintiff overlooks the fact that the ALJ not only found Plaintiff's alcoholism to be a material contributing factor, but also noted his cocaine and marijuana ...


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