United States District Court, W.D. Missouri.
CHRISTOPHER S. PINKSTON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
ORDER AFFIRMING THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE'S DECISION
GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.
This action seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying Plaintiff Christopher S. Pinkston's applications for Social Security benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found on behalf of the Commissioner that Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, but retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform past relevant work as a certified nurse's aide and expediter/chain planner.
After carefully reviewing the record and the parties' briefs, the Court finds substantial record evidence supports the ALJ's opinion. The ALJ's decision is AFFIRMED.
Procedural and Factual Background
The complete facts and arguments are presented in the parties' briefs and are repeated here only to the extent necessary. Plaintiff filed the pending application on December 21, 2010, alleging a disability period of August 31, 2009, through September 30, 2011. The Commissioner denied the application at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. On June 1, 2012, the ALJ held a hearing, and then issued a decision on June 13, 2012, finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 26, 2013, leaving the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and is now eligible for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
Standard of Review
The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled, that is, unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
A federal court's review of the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits is limited to determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough evidence that a reasonable mind would find it sufficient to support the ALJ's decision. Id. In making this assessment, the court considers evidence that detracts from the ALJ's decision, as well as evidence that supports it. McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000). The court must "defer heavily" to the ALJ's findings and conclusions. Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The court may reverse the ALJ's decision only if it falls outside of the available zone of choice, and a decision is not outside this zone simply because the court might have decided the case differently were it the initial finder of fact. Buckner, 646 F.3d at 556.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) finding that drug and alcohol abuse were material contributing factors to Plaintiff's disability; and (2) formulating Plaintiff's RFC without considering: (a) all of Plaintiff's limitations, (b) Plaintiff's low GAF scores, and (c) Plaintiff's subjective complaints. These arguments are without merit.
I. The ALJ properly found that drug and alcohol abuse were material contributing factors to Plaintiff's disability.
Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ improperly found Plaintiff's substance abuse disorder was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability. If the ALJ finds that the claimant is disabled but also finds evidence of substance abuse, then he must determine what limitations would remain if the claimant's substance abuse ceased. Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d 533, 537 (8th Cir. 2010) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1535(a), 416.935(a)). If the claimant's remaining limitations would not be disabling, then the addiction or alcoholism is a "contributing factor material to the determination of disability, " and the claimant is not disabled under the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1535(b)(2)(i), 416.935(b)(2)(i); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(C), 1382c(a)(3)(J).
Here, the ALJ determined that without Plaintiff's substance abuse, Plaintiff still had severe physical impairments resulting from his obesity and diabetes mellitus but only mild mental limitations. R. at 16-17 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)(3)). These remaining limitations were not disabling, so Plaintiff's substance abuse was a "contributing factor material to the determination of disability." R. at 18-20.
In finding that Plaintiff was not disabled absent his substance abuse, the ALJ relied on substantial record evidence culled from Plaintiff's sober periods. Plaintiff testified that he had been sober for two years prior to his hearing date of June 1, 2012. R. at 36-37, and he testified to having some social normalcy during that time. He intended on returning to school, suggesting that he felt he could interact with his fellow classmates and professors appropriately and that he was capable of concentrating over an extended period. R. at 219, 250. He ...