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Johnson v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

April 21, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JOHN T. NIXON, Senior Judge.

At issue in this matter is whether a Social Security Administration Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in declining to give controlling weight to the medical opinion of Dr. Roy Asta that Plaintiff's past substance abuse was not material to his disability. Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record ("Motion") (Doc. No. 12), filed with a Brief in Support (Doc. No. 12-1). Defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") filed a Response in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion (Doc. No. 18), and Plaintiff filed a Reply (Doc. No. 19-1). Magistrate Judge Brown issued a Report and Recommendation ("Report"), finding that the ALJ erred and recommending that Plaintiff's Motion be granted in part and the case remanded to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings. (Doc. No. 20 at 14-15.) The Commissioner filed an Objection to the Report (Doc. No. 21) and Plaintiff filed a Response (Doc. No. 25). For the reasons stated below, the Court ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge's Report as modified below, GRANTS in part Plaintiff's Motion, VACATES the administrative decision, and REMANDS this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings. Plaintiff's Motions for Status (Doc. Nos. 26, 27) are TERMINATED AS MOOT. The Clerk of the Court is DIRECTED to close the case.


The Court adopts the facts and procedural history as stated in the Review of the Record in Magistrate Judge Brown's Report. (Doc. No. 20 at 1-7.) The Court restates the facts and procedural history below only as necessary and relevant to the resolution of the issues.


The Court's review of the Report is de novo. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) (2012). However, Title II of the Social Security Act provides that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2012). Therefore, the Court's review is limited to "a determination of whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the [Commissioner's] decision and to a review for any legal errors." Landsaw v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 803 F.2d 211, 213 (6th Cir. 1986). Substantial evidence is a term of art and is defined as "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)). It is "more than a mere scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance." Bell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 105 F.3d 244, 245 (6th Cir. 1996) (citing Consol. Edison, 305 U.S. at 229).

"Where substantial evidence supports the [Commissioner's] determination, it is conclusive, even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion." Crum v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 642, 644 (6th Cir. 1990); see Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389 (6th Cir. 1999). This standard of review is consistent with the well-settled rule that the reviewing court in a disability hearing appeal is not to weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations because these factual determinations are left to the ALJ and to the Commissioner. Hogg v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 328, 331 (6th Cir. 1993); Besaw v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 966 F.2d 1028, 1030 (6th Cir. 1992). Thus, even if the Court would have come to different factual conclusions than the ALJ as to the plaintiff's claim on the merits, the Commissioner's findings must be affirmed if they are supported by substantial evidence. Hogg, 987 F.2d at 331.


The parties contest whether the ALJ properly declined to assign controlling weight to Dr. Roy Asta's opinion that Johnson's history of substance abuse was not material to his disability. The Magistrate Judge determined that the ALJ erred in failing to give controlling weight to Dr. Asta's opinion. (Doc. No. 20 at 14-15.) The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's determination was correct because Dr. Asta's opinions were based on the assumption that Johnson was not abusing drugs during any part of his treatment; because the evidence allegedly reveals Dr. Asta did not know Johnson was continuing to abuse drugs in treatment, Dr. Asta's assumption was incorrect, and his opinion therefore cannot be entitled to controlling weight. (Doc. No. 24 at 5.)

If a Social Security claimant's substance use disorder is "a contributing factor material to the Commissioner's determination that the individual is disabled, " the claimant is not disabled under the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C) (2012). Substance use is a contributing material factor to a disability determination if the claimant would not be disabled under the Act if he "stopped using drugs or alcohol." 20 C.F.R. § 416.935(b)(1) (2012). In making this determination, the ALJ must "follow the same rules for evaluating evidence... that [he or she] use[s] to [evaluate] other types of claims, " including the treating source rule. Social Security Administration Program Operations Manual System ("POMS") DI 90070.050, Adjudicating a Claim Involving Drug Addiction or Alcoholism (DAA); see, e.g., Johnson-Hunt v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 500 F.Appx. 411, 417 (6th Cir. 2012).

The ALJ is required to give treating source[1] opinions "controlling weight" if the following conditions are met: "(1) the opinion is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques'; and (2) the opinion is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record.'" Gayheart v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 710 F.3d 365, 376 (6th Cir. 2013), reh'g denied (May 2, 2013) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)); West v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 240 F.Appx. 692, 696 (6th Cir. 2007). If the ALJ discounts a treating physician's opinion, he must give "good reasons" for doing so that are supported by the evidence in the record and sufficiently specific to permit "meaningful review of the ALJ's application of the rule." Id. (internal citations omitted). A failure to give "good reasons" "denotes a lack of substantial evidence, even where the conclusion of the ALJ may be justified based upon the record" and, unless the failure is harmless error, requires remand. Friend v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.Appx. 543, 551 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 243 (6th Cir. 2007)).

The ALJ based his decision that Johnson's history of substance abuse is material on three findings: (1) "the claimant was noted with serious mental symptomology and a GAF score assessment of 50 at times, but was also assessed with a GAF scores of 60 at other times"; (2) compared to treatment notes from September 2008, the ALJ found "more recent treatment notes, during a period of time that illicit drug use is presumed to have decreased, if not completely stopped, indicate the claimant was stable and his medication was more effective in May of 2010"; and (3) the ALJ's assessment that Johnson's "testimony regarding his use of cocaine was inconsistent." (Tr. 44.) Furthermore, the ALJ determined that Dr. Asta's medical opinion that Johnson's drug use was not material to his disabilities was not entitled to controlling weight because of (1) the inconsistency in Johnson's testimony, and (2) "Dr. Asta's lack of knowledge regarding the extent of the claimant's drug use while under the doctor's treatment." (Tr. 46-47.)

A. The ALJ's Controlling Weight Analysis

As to Dr. Asta's knowledge of Johnson's substance abuse, this Court finds the ALJ's conclusion is not supported by evidence in the record. In his June 17, ...

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