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Romero v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southwestern Division

August 11, 2017

MISTY ROMERO, O/B/O RICARDO ROMERO Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          GREG KAYS, CHIEF JUDGE

         This action seeks judicial review of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's (“the Commissioner”) decision denying Plaintiff Ricardo Romero's[1] applications for Social Security disability insurance 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 Plaintiff had several severe impairments including degenerative joint disease, bilateral shoulder arthritis, bipolor affective disorder, anxiety, and a history of alcohol abuse, but retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a range of sedentary work. The ALJ also found that if Plaintiff was not abusing alcohol, his impairments would not preclude him from performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, including work as a general assembler, table worker, and sealer. Hence, Plaintiff's substance abuse was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, and Plaintiff was not disabled.

         After carefully reviewing the record and the parties' arguments, the Court finds the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. The Commissioner'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 his applications on September 5, 2008, alleging a disability onset date of July 25, 2008. The Commissioner denied the applications at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. The ALJ held a hearing, and on July 16, 2010, issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. After the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Plaintiff appealed to the United States District Court. At Defendant's request, the Court remanded the case for additional consideration.

         On July 23, 2012, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to re-examine the decision that Plaintiff could perform his past work. On November 21, 2013, after holding a second hearing, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled. The ALJ found there were no jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could currently perform, but absent his substance abuse, he would be able to perform some sedentary work.

         Plaintiff then filed another request for review with the Appeals Council. While this appeal was pending, Plaintiff passed away. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 10, 2015, leaving the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and judicial review is now appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         Standard of Review

         A federal court's review of the Commissioner's decision to deny disability benefits is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Chaney v. Colvin, 812 F.3d 672, 676 (8th Cir. 2016). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but is enough evidence that a reasonable mind would find it sufficient to support the Commissioner's decision. Id. In making this assessment, the court considers evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision, as well as evidence that supports it. Id. The court must “defer heavily” to the Commissioner's findings and conclusions. Wright v. Colvin, 789 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2015). The court may reverse the Commissioner's decision only if it falls outside of the available zone of choice; a decision is not outside this zone simply because the evidence also points to an alternate outcome. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011).

         Discussion

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process[2] 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). Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred: (1) in finding his substance abuse was material; and (2) in failing to support the RFC determination with substantial evidence. Both arguments are unavailing.

         I. The ALJ did not err in finding Plaintiff's substance abuse was a contributing factor material to his disability.

         Plaintiff argues the case should be remanded because the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff's alcohol abuse was a contributing factor material to his finding of disability is not supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by finding that Plaintiff's alcoholism was not in remission and for giving little weight to the opinions of his treating doctors that he ...


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