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Ross v. Astrue

January 3, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Leon Jordan United States District Judge


This is an action for judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of defendant Commissioner's final decision denying plaintiff's claim for disability insurance and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. For the reasons provided herein, defendant's motion for summary judgment [doc. 23] will be granted, and plaintiff's pending motions will be denied.*fn1 The final decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff carries diagnoses of bipolar disorder and alcohol dependency. [Tr. 254]. He applied for benefits in October 2003, claiming to be disabled by bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and anxiety. [Tr. 51, 58]. Plaintiff originally alleged a disability onset date of October 1, 2000. [Tr. 51]. His applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. He then requested a hearing, which took place before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on March 23, 2005.*fn2

On June 3, 2005, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. The ALJ found that, absent his "well-documented alcohol abuse," plaintiff suffers from no severe impairment. [Tr. 15-19].*fn3 Citing "abundant evidence in the record that the claimant lacks credibility," the ALJ concluded that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform his past relevant work as a carpenter or deli helper. [Tr. 17-18]. Plaintiff was accordingly found "not disabled."

Plaintiff then sought review from the Commissioner's Appeals Council. Review was denied on March 17, 2006, notwithstanding the submission of additional medical evidence. [Tr. 5, 8]. The ALJ's ruling therefore became the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Through his timely complaint, plaintiff has properly brought his case before this court for review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).*fn4

II. Relevant Background

Plaintiff was born in 1962 and has a high school equivalency degree. [Tr. 51, 64]. He is admittedly able to play computer games up to thirty minutes at a time [Tr. 86], work three to four hours, once or twice per week, for his landlord [Tr. 87, 543-44], and shop independently "sometimes" for groceries [Tr. 90] and beer [Tr. 442].

Plaintiff claims to have "bad days when alcohol isn't even in the equasion [sic]." [Doc. 21, p. 2]. He contends that "I am disabled anyway without reliance on any substance use or misuse. I have always been honest about this[.]" [Doc. 25, p. 2]. Due to his purported disability, plaintiff states that "work is the furthest thing from my mind." [Tr. 71].

III. Expert Testimony

Dr. Edward Griffin appeared as a medical expert at the administrative hearing. Dr. Griffin testified that plaintiff has "no physical limitations." [Tr. 548].

Dr. Thomas Schacht also appeared as a medical expert. Based on plaintiff's continued alcohol consumption, and his self-reporting of the beneficial effects of certain medications (when in compliance), Dr. Schacht identified no psychological limitations in the absence of drug and alcohol abuse. [Tr. 549-51, 558-562].

Lastly, vocational expert Cathy Sanders testified at the administrative hearing. The ALJ hypothesized a claimant restricted to "simple work" with "no other limitations." [Tr. 562-63]. Ms. Sanders responded that the hypothetical claimant could return to plaintiff's prior deli helper and carpenter jobs. [Tr. 563]. Conversely, if the extremely restrictive mental assessment generated by plaintiff's former nurse practitioner [Tr. 370-71] was fully credited, all employment would be precluded. [Tr. 564].

IV. Applicable Legal Standards

This court's review is confined to whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether his factual findings were supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). "Substantial evidence" is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The substantial evidence standard "presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which the decisionmakers can go either way, without interference by the courts. An administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision." Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (citation omitted).

A claimant is entitled to disability insurance payments if he (1) is insured for disability insurance benefits, (2) has not attained retirement age, (3) has filed an application for disability insurance benefits, and (4) is under a disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). "Disability" is the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).*fn5 Disability is evaluated pursuant to a five-step analysis summarized as follows:

1. If claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.

2. If claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity, his impairment must be severe before he can be found to be disabled.

3. If claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity and is suffering from a severe impairment that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months, and his impairment meets or equals a listed ...

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