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Russell v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 30, 2017

Craig Russell, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DOUGLAS L. RAYES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Craig Russell applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on September 18, 2012, alleging disability beginning December 31, 2008. After state agency denials, Russell appeared for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). A vocational expert also was present and testified. Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that Russell is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). The ALJ's decision became the agency's final decision after the Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Russell's request for review. Russell now seeks judicial review of that decision. For the following reasons, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration is affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the SAA, the ALJ follows a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where he determines whether the claimant can perform any other work based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the claimant is disabled.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Russell meets the insured status requirements of the SSA through September 30, 2014, and that he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2008. (A.R. 22-23.) At step two, the ALJ found that Russell's affective and substance abuse disorders are severe impairments. (Id. at 23.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Russell's impairments meet or equal the severity of listings 12.04 and 12.09. (Id. at 24.) The ALJ also found at step three, however, that Russell would not have an impairment that medically meets or equals the severity of a listed impairment if he stopped his substance use. (Id. at 25-26.) The ALJ proceeded to complete the sequential analysis, noting at each step that his findings were contingent upon Russell ceasing his substance use. At step four, the ALJ found that:

[Russell] would have the [RFC] to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: [he] is limited to simple work with only incidental social contact.

(Id. at 26.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that Russell would be unable to perform his past relevant work. (Id. at 30.) At step five, however, after considering Russell's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Russell can perform. (Id.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Russell was not disabled within the meaning of the SSA because his substance use is a contributing factor material to the disability determination, and he would not be disabled if he stopped the substance use. (Id. at 30-31.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         It is not the district court's role to review the ALJ's decision de novo or otherwise determine whether the claimant is disabled. Rather, the court is limited to reviewing the ALJ's decision to determine whether it “contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, and “such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. “Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Id. The court, however, “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Id. Nor may the court “affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Id.

         DISCUSSION

         Russell argues that the ALJ improperly found that his: (1) substance use was material to the disability determination; (2) back pain and sleep apnea were not severe; and (3) limitations allowed him to work in jobs with only incidental social contact, without defining the term. (Doc. 9.) Having reviewed the record and the parties' briefs, the Court finds no reversible error.

         I. Substance Use as a Material Contributing Factor

         The ALJ found that Russell's affective and substance abuse disorders were severe, and that while on methamphetamine his impairments met listings 12.04 and 12.09. Because drug abuse cannot be a material factor in the ALJ's disability determination, the ALJ then re-analyzed Russell's impairments at step three as if he had stopped using methamphetamine. This time, the ALJ concluded that Russell's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ also concluded that, if not on drugs, Russell would be able to perform simple work with incidental social contact and that such jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy.

         Agency regulations provide that “[a]n individual shall not be considered to be disabled . . . if alcoholism or drug addiction would . . . be a contributing factor material to the Commissioner's determination that the individual is disabled.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(c). In order “[t]o find that [drug abuse] is material, we must have evidence in the case record demonstrating that any remaining limitations [when not using drugs] were not disabling during the period.” SSR 13-2p, 2013 WL 621536, at *12. “Especially in cases involving co-occurring mental disorders, the documentation of a period of abstinence ...


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