United States District Court, D. Kansas
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
ERIC F. MELGREN, District Judge.
Plaintiff Linda Marrs seeks review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff claims that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed because the ALJ failed to do a proper drug abuse and alcoholism analysis and erred in finding that Plaintiff's drug use was a material factor to her disability. Plaintiff also claims that the ALJ failed to conduct a proper credibility analysis. Because the Commissioner's finding that Plaintiff's drug use was a material factor to her disability was not supported by substantial evidence, the Court reverses and remands this case for further consideration.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
Plaintiff was born in 1967. Prior to her alleged disability, Plaintiff worked as a wire harness assembler. Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period of review.
In her applications for disability and supplemental security income, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of July 29, 2009. Plaintiff's insured status expires on December 31, 2014. Plaintiff alleges disability during this time period primarily due to depression and bipolar disorder. The agency denied Plaintiff's application both initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an ALJ.
The ALJ held an administrative hearing on November 10, 2010. During the hearing, Plaintiff testified regarding her medical conditions. On February 16, 2011, the ALJ issued his decision finding that Plaintiff was not under a "disability" as defined in the Social Security Act because she could perform other work. Plaintiff sought reconsideration of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council denied on March 9, 2011. Accordingly, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner, and this Court has jurisdiction to review the decision.
II. Legal Standard
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Upon review, the Court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the factual findings and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard. "Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." The Court is not to reweigh the evidence or substitute its opinion for the ALJ. The Court must examine the record as a whole, including whatever in the record detracts from the ALJ's findings, to determine if the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence or if it is a mere conclusion.
To establish a disability, a claimant must demonstrate a physical or mental impairment that has lasted, or can be expected to last, for a continuous period of twelve months and an inability to engage in any substantial gainful work existing in the national economy due to the impairment. The ALJ uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate whether a claimant is disabled. The claimant bears the burden during the first four steps.
In steps one and two, the claimant must demonstrate that he is not presently engaged in substantial gainful activity and that he has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. "At step three, if a claimant can show that the impairment is equivalent to a listed impairment, he is presumed to be disabled and entitled to benefits." If, however, the claimant does not establish an impairment at step three, the process continues. The ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functioning capacity ("RFC"), and at step four, the claimant must demonstrate that his impairment prevents him from performing his past work. The Commissioner has the burden at the fifth step to demonstrate that work exists in the national economy within the claimant's RFC. The RFC assessment is used to evaluate the claim at both steps four and five.
The ALJ's disability determination is divided into two parts. First, the ALJ analyzed whether Plaintiff was disabled considering all of her impairments, including her substance use. At steps one and two, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not engaged in substantial gainful activity and that she had the medically "severe" impairments of bipolar disorder and substance use of marijuana. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's conditions did not meet or equal a listed impairment. After formulating Plaintiff's RFC, which stated that due to Plaintiff's substance use, Plaintiff would not be able to complete a normal workday or workweek, the ALJ found under step four that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ determined that there are no jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform.
Next, the ALJ analyzed whether Plaintiff would still be disabled if she stopped her substance use. In that case, the ALJ determined that at step two, Plaintiff would still have the severe impairment of bipolar disorder. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairment did not meet or equal a listed impairment. After formulating Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a wire harness assembler. Consequently, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred because he failed to conduct the proper drug abuse and alcoholism analysis and because he found that Plaintiff's drug use was a material factor to her disability. Plaintiff also argues ...