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Geer v. Berryhill

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

March 27, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This action seeks judicial review of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's (“the Commissioner”) decision denying Plaintiff Theresa Geer's 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 numerous severe impairments, but if she stopped using methamphetamine she would retain the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work as an office helper, routing clerk, or mail clerk.

         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 her applications on April 17, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of October 5, 2011. 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 January 21, 2016, issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 6, 2017, 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).


         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process[1] 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 at Step Three by (1) finding that her drug abuse was a material factor contributing to her alleged disability and (2) finding that her impairments would not meet or equal a listed impairment if she stopped using methamphetamine. Further, the ALJ erred at Step Four by (3) discounting her credibility and (4) improperly assessing her physical and mental RFC.[2] Finally, the ALJ erred at Step Five by (5) finding the Commissioner had met her burden of showing that Plaintiff could perform other work in the national economy.

         All five arguments are without merit.

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

         In determining whether a claimant's substance abuse is a contributing factor to a determination of disability, the ALJ must first make a determination based on the five-step approach without segregating out any effects that might be due to substance abuse. Brueggemann v. Barnhart, 348 F.3d 689, 694 (8th Cir. 2003). If the claimant's total limitations, including those from the effects of substance abuse disorders, indicate he or she is disabled, then the ALJ must determine which limitations remain after the effects of the substance abuse disorders are removed. Id. at 694-95. The claimant carries the burden of proving her substance abuse is not a contributing factor material to the claimed disability. Id. at 693. If after conducting this analysis the ALJ cannot tell whether the claimant's substance abuse is a material factor, then the ALJ must award benefits. Id. at 695. But the Eighth Circuit has cautioned that “when the claimant is actively abusing alcohol or drugs, this determination will necessarily be hypothetical and therefore more difficult than the same task when the claimant has stopped.” Id.

         The Court holds substantial evidence on the record supports the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff was capable of working absent any substance abuse. At the outset, the Court notes Plaintiff testified she stopped using methamphetamine three months prior to the hearing, which was held on November 18, 2015. R. at 57. This fact makes the analysis more difficult, and it is Plaintiff's burden to prove her substance abuse was not a contributing factor material to the disability. The record indicates that when Plaintiff was using drugs, she was anxious, R. at 306-07, 312-13, 319, 1190, 1192. But when she cut back or stopped using drugs, she had improved mood and did better. R. at 309, 1207, 1221, 1237. She also had no anxiety, depression, or sleep disturbance. R. at 575-76, 754-55, 764-65, 788-89. Additionally, Plaintiff testified that she probably could hold a job while using methamphetamine, although she would not be performing to the best of her ability. R. at 58. On this record, the ALJ made a reasonable inference that if Plaintiff was ...

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