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Lile v. Commissioner of The Social Security Administration

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

April 30, 2019

CARIANN LILE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION; Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING THE ALJ'S DECISION

          ROSEANN A. KETCHMARK, JUDGE

         Before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of Defendant Social Security Administration's (“SSA's”) denial of disability benefits as rendered in a decision by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). For the reasons below, the decision of the ALJ is AFFIRMED.

         Standard of Review

         The Court's review of the ALJ's decision to deny disability benefits is limited to determining if the decision “complies with the relevant legal requirements and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Halverson v. Astrue, 600 F.3d 922, 929 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Ford v. Astrue, 518 F.3d 979, 981 (8th Cir. 2008)). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence, but is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind would find adequate to support the [ALJ's] conclusion.'” Grable v. Colvin, 770 F.3d 1196, 1201 (8th Cir. 2014) (quoting Davis v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 962, 966 (8th Cir. 2001)). In determining whether existing evidence is substantial, the Court takes into account “evidence that detracts from the [ALJ's] decision as well as evidence that supports it.” Cline v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 1098, 1102 (8th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). “If the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, [the Court] may not reverse even if substantial evidence would support the opposite outcome or [the Court] would have decided differently.” Smith v. Colvin, 756 F.3d 621, 625 (8th Cir. 2014) (citing Davis v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 962, 966 (8th Cir. 2001)). The Court does not “re-weigh the evidence presented to the ALJ.” Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005) (citing Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 549, 555 (8th Cir. 2003)). The Court must “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions of the [ALJ].” Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).

         Discussion

         By way of overview, the ALJ determined, following a remand from the SSA Appeals Council, [1] that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: “fibromyalgia vs rheumatoid arthritis; anxiety disorder; affective disorder; and substance abuse disorder.” However, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, whether considered alone or in combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (“Listing”). The ALJ found that, despite Plaintiff's limitations, she retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a range of light work[2] with certain limitations, such as performing only simple, repetitive, and routine job duties, with no interaction with the public and only occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors. The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work but that she could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, including the jobs of office helper, mail clerk, and photocopy machine operator. Consequently, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled.

         On appeal, Plaintiff makes one argument: that the ALJ committed an error of law by failing to analyze Plaintiff's drug and alcohol use under the procedures outlined in Brueggemann v. Barnhart, 348 F.3d 689 (8th Cir. 2003), Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d 533 (8th Cir. 2010), and 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1535(b), 416.935(b). The Court agrees but concludes the error is harmless.

         Under a 1996 amendment to the Social Security Act, “[a]n individual shall not be considered to be disabled for purposes of this subchapter if alcoholism or drug addiction would (but for this subparagraph) be a contributing factor material to the Commissioner's determination that the individual is disabled.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(C), 1382c(a)(3)(J). The implementing regulations provide as follows:

(a) General. If we find that you are disabled and have medical evidence of your drug addiction or alcoholism, we must determine whether your drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability.
(b) Process we will follow when we have medical evidence of your drug addiction or alcoholism.
(1) The key factor we will examine in determining whether drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability is whether we would still find you disabled if you stopped using drugs or alcohol.
(2) In making this determination, we will evaluate which of your current physical and mental limitations, upon which we based our current disability determination, would remain if you stopped using drugs or alcohol and then determine whether any or all of your remaining limitations would be disabling.
(i) If we determine that your remaining limitations would not be disabling, we will find that your drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability.
(ii) If we determine that your remaining limitations are disabling, you are disabled independent of your drug addiction or alcoholism and we will find that your drug addiction or alcoholism is not a contributing ...

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