United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
ROBERT S. BALLOU, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Robert Allen Remines ("Remines") filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") finding that he was not eligible for supplemental security income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. Remines alleges that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") committed error in evaluating his mental impairments and determining that his substance abuse disorder was a contributing factor material to the determination that he was disabled. I conclude that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision on all grounds. Accordingly, I RECOMMEND DENYING Remines' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 11), and GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. No. 16.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
This Court limits its review to a determination of whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's conclusion that Remines failed to demonstrate that he was disabled under the Act. "Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal citations omitted). The final decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed where substantial evidence supports the decision. Hays v. Sullivan , 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). In cases such as this, where the claimant has submitted additional evidence to the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council considered that evidence, this court must review the record as a whole, including the new evidence, to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings. Wilkins v. Sec'y, Dep't of Health and Human Servs. , 953 F.2d 93, 95-96 (4th Cir. 1991).
Remines protectively filed for SSI on September 23, 2009, claiming that his disability began on September 24, 1997. R. 167. The Commissioner denied the application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 63-93, 92-96, 101-06. On September 27, 2011, ALJ Thomas W. Erwin held a hearing to consider Remines' disability claim. R. 38-62. Remines was represented by an attorney at the hearing, which included testimony from Remines, his mother Helen Lemons, and vocational expert James Williams. R. 37.
On October 14, 2011, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing Remines' claim under the familiar five-step process and denying his claim for benefits. R. 15-30. The ALJ found that Remines suffered from the severe impairments of polysubstance abuse, history of alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety, and status post left finger lacerations. R. 20. The ALJ found that these impairments, either individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 21. The ALJ determined that considering all of Remines' impairments, including his substance use disorder, Remines retained the he retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a range of medium work with other restrictions involving an inability to sustain work and required absences. R. 22. Under this RFC inclusive of Remines' substance use disorder, the ALJ found that no jobs existed in the national economy which Remines could perform. R. 24.
However, the ALJ further found that if Remines stopped his substance abuse, Remines retained an RFC to perform medium work, but would be restricted from climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and that he should avoid machinery and heights hazards. R. 26. Regarding his mental functionality, the ALJ found that Remines would be able to maintain attention and concentration for short periods of time commensurate with simple, routine, repetitive, unskilled tasks, and that he could engage in only occasional interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public. R. 26. The ALJ determined that Remines had no relevant past work (R. 29), but that Remines could work at jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as a kitchen helper, marker/price changer, and garment sorter. R. 30. Thus, the ALJ concluded that he was not disabled. R. 30. On February 22, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Remines' request for review (R. 1-4), and this appeal followed.
The thrust of Remines' argument is that the ALJ improperly found that his substance use disorder was a contributing factor material to the ALJ's determination that Remines was disabled, and that if he stopped using substances, he would not be disabled. Therefore, Remines contends, the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. I disagree, and find that the ALJ's conclusions about Remines' substance use and his decision as a whole is supported by substantial evidence in the record.
Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C), "[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." The regulations further provide that the "key factor" in determining whether determining whether alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, is whether the claimant would still be disabled if he or she stopped using substances. 20 C.F.R. 404.1535. This analysis requires that the ALJ determine which of the claimant's limitations would remain if he stopped using substances, and then determine whether these limitations would be disabling. Remines bears the burden of proving that he would still be disabled absent his use of substances. Shoulars v. Astrue , 671 F.Supp.2d 801, 811 (E.D. N.C. 2009).
Remines' bouts with substance abuse, and alcohol in particular, are well documented in the record. So too are his complaints of depression and anxiety, which date back to when he was 14 years old. R. 299-302. Remines began drinking significant amounts of alcohol when he was a teenager (R. 381) and alcohol use coincides with the worst episodes of mental health decompensation. In the sustained periods he remained sober, however, the record shows that Remines' mental health stabilized and that he was functional.
On June 3, 2008, Remines was taken to the hospital after exhibiting violent and destructive behavior while intoxicated and off medication. R. 323-25. At that time, Remines admitted abusing a number of drugs, including cocaine, Xanax, Percocet, marijuana, and alcohol. R. 325. Remines reported self-inflicted cuts, cigarette burns, tattoos, and branding. Remines did not meet the criteria for a temporary detention order ("TDO"), and he was referred to outpatient counseling. Remines was again hospitalized on June 17, 2008 after expressing suicidal ideations and cutting himself while intoxicated. R. 307-313. Remines also stated that a month prior he took a gun, loaded a bullet in the chamber, stuck it in his mouth, pulled the trigger, and "was disappointed when it didn't go off." R. 311 Remines stated that he drank alcohol heavily, and that he snorted Xanax and other pills as recently as that day. R. 311-12. As a result of his suicidal ideations with active substance abuse, Remines was sent to the Southwest Virginia Mental Health Institute on a TDO. R. 314.
While detained, Remines stated that as recently as two weeks prior, he drank daily up to a pint to one-fifth of bourbon, plus six to 12 beers, in addition to abusing pills and marijuana. Remines described mood swings that lead him to drink. R. 336. Providers ruled out bipolar disorder, and instead diagnosed Remines with alcohol dependence, nicotine dependence, cannabis abuse, and benzodiazepine abuse. R. 337, 339. Remines was assessed with a Global Assessment of Functioning score of 50. Remines was discharged after three days, and agreed to follow up with recommended ...