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Charles L. Cutler v. Michael J. Astrue

August 30, 2011

CHARLES L. CUTLER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Richard J. Arcara United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Charles L. Cutler commenced this action on August 6, 2009, pursuant to § 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"),*fn1 seeking review of a final determination by Michael J. Astrue, the Commissioner of Social Security(the "Commissioner"), denying disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income Benefits under the Act. The plaintiff sought disability insurance benefits for impairments resulting from alcohol and opioid dependence, depression, panic disorder with agoraphobia, right shoulder rotator cuff tear, heel bursitis, and plantar fasciitis of the feet, alleging the inability to engage in any substantial activity since September 27, 2005.*fn2 In a written decision dated July 25, 2008, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") determined that the plaintiff's substance use disorders were material factors contributing to disability and that he would not be disabled under the Act if the plaintiff were to stop his substance use. Additionally, the ALJ found that in the absence of substance use, the plaintiff retained the capacity to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. In a letter dated June 30, 2010, the Appeals Council affirmed the denial of benefits and denied the plaintiff's request for review.

Pending before the Court are cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The plaintiff seeks judgment on the pleadings to reverse the findings of the Commissioner on the grounds that denial of disability was not supported by substantial evidence, contending that the ALJ improperly found that the plaintiff's substance abuse was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability. Additionally, the plaintiff alleges that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the plaintiff's subjective complaints. The Commissioner also seeks judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that finding the plaintiff's substance abuse was a material factor contributing to the determination of disability was supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, the Commissioner contends that the impairments presented by the plaintiff, including substance abuse, limited the range of work the plaintiff would be able to perform. Once the presence of substance abuse is removed from consideration in determining the plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), the remaining limitations or combination of impairments do not meet or medically equal the enumerated impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

For the reasons stated herein, the Court finds that the Commissioner's determination that the plaintiff's substance use was a factor material to the determination of disability is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Therefore, the Commissioner's cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted and the plaintiff's motion is denied.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed for disability insurance benefits on January 24, 2006, and Supplemental Security Income Benefits on October 24, 2006. (Tr. 78-81).*fn3 The

plaintiff was born in 1958 and attended school up to eleventh grade but did not graduate or obtain his GED. (Tr. 652). At the review hearing, the plaintiff testified that he had received vocational training as a welder. Id. The plaintiff was divorced and resided with his two children. Id. His past relevant work included employment as a trucking dock man, light truck driver, and railroad car repair. (Tr. 664-68).

In his application for benefits, the plaintiff stated that he stopped working on July 19, 2005 because he was laid off and ridiculed by others, resulting in his being scared to go to work. (Tr. 83, 96-97). He testified that he had undergone two surgeries to repair a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder and re-injured his arm while working on railroad cars. (Tr. 655, 667-68). The injury to the right shoulder allegedly caused the plaintiff daily pain and significant weakness, leaving him unable to use it for more than five minutes. (Tr. 656-57). His shoulder pain was compounded by lower back pain and foot pain that radiated into his legs. Id. The plaintiff also testified that his foot pain was a result of orthotics prescribed by his foot doctor. (Tr. 655). Despite a numbness and tingling that affects his hands and back, the plaintiff stated that he was able to lift up to 30 pounds, walk for an eighth of a mile, stand for five minutes, and sit for 25 minutes. (Tr. 670-71). His physical limitations prevented him from squatting, bending, stooping, climbing, or picking up objects when experiencing numbness in the hands. (Tr. 672). The plaintiff also complained about his legs giving out, muscle spasms, and low back pain persisting every five to ten minutes. (Tr. 656-57).

The plaintiff also claimed to suffer mental impairments. He testified that he experiences crying spells every other day due to feelings of isolation and a lack of a support group. (Tr. 674). In addition, he rarely leaves the house due to panic attacks that have been present for the past fifteen years. (Tr. 660-61). The panic attacks produced palpitations, sweating, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and chest pains. (Tr. 214-18). Additional effects of the mental impairments included interference with short-term memory, irritability, and lack of attention and concentration. Id. The plaintiff has also received treatment for his psychological issues at Dale Association. (Tr. 675). He was prescribed Xanax to alleviate some of his mental impairments. (Tr. 661). The plaintiff also has a history of substance abuse and addiction. The plaintiff testified that he last used drugs in 2002 and stopped using alcohol in 2006. (Tr. 662). He believed he was addicted to pain killers and was subsequently prescribed Suboxone that helped eliminate his alcohol abuse. Id. The plaintiff also testified that in his twenties and thirties he used marijuana, PCP, LSD, and cocaine, the latter being used on the weekends. (Tr. 664). The plaintiff's substance use resulted in inpatient drug treatment in 1997 and outpatient rehabilitation program in 2002. (Tr. 271, 662-63).

The plaintiff's daily activities include cleaning his apartment, cooking, laundry, sweeping, taking out the trash, shopping, and driving a car. (Tr. 668-70). He stated that he could dress himself but had issues with putting on his socks.

Id. As for the plaintiff's range of motion, he was able to hold his arms out in front of him but could not successfully raise his arms over his head. Id. There was no evidence that he had any limitations on pushing or pulling. Id.

Following the administrative hearing, the ALJ concluded in a written decision on July 25, 2008, that the plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act and not entitled to disability benefits. The ALJ found that the plaintiff had met the insured status requirements of the Act, had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of September 27, 2005, and experienced a severe combination of impairments. (Tr. 16). Despite the impairments, the plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 17). When considering the plaintiff's impairments, including the substance use, the ALJ also found that the plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work or any other jobs in the national economy. (Tr. 19). Finally, the ALJ found that if the plaintiff stopped abusing drugs and alcohol, he would not be disabled and would be able to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. (Tr. 21).

After the administrative proceedings, the plaintiff petitioned this Court for review. The plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred as a matter of law in determining that the plaintiff's drug and alcohol use is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability. The plaintiff contends that the ALJ did not properly consider the report of Licensed Clinical Social Worker ("LCSW") , Karen Whitman, who stated that substance abuse was not a contributing factor to the plaintiff's disability. Additionally, the plaintiff also alleges that the ALJ has a duty to recontact treating physicians to obtain blood and urinalysis ...


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