United States District Court, D. Kansas
MARK A. RYAN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Comm'r of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
CARLOS MURGUIA, District Judge.
Plaintiff Mark A. Ryan claims that he became unable to work in May 2009 because of the following health issues: (1) chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"); (2) dysthymia; (3) attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"); (4) asthma; (5) brain trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"); (6) frontal lobe dysfunction; and (7) narcolepsy. Plaintiff's medical history is lengthy and includes many visits or hospitalizations between 2009 and 2013. Plaintiff's employment history indicates ten years of employment with significant earnings from 1996 to 2009. Most recently, plaintiff was self-employed. He filed this action pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq., requesting supplemental security income benefits.
An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that plaintiff has severe impairments, including substance use, depressive/mood, and personality disorders in a decision dated July 3, 2013, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's decision is flawed because the ALJ's residual functional capacity ("RFC") is not based on substantial evidence of the record and the vocational expert's ("VE") testimony is unreliable. The court disagrees.
I. Legal Standard
This court applies a two-pronged review to the ALJ's decision: (1) Are the factual findings supported by substantial evidence in the record? (2) Did the ALJ apply the correct legal standards? Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted). "Substantial evidence" is a term of art, meaning "more than a mere scintilla" and "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Hunter v. Astrue, 321 F.Appx. 789, 792 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007)). When evaluating whether the standard has been met, the court is limited; it may neither reweigh the evidence nor replace the ALJ's judgment with its own. Bellamy v. Massanari, 29 F.Appx. 567, 569 (10th Cir. 2002) (citing Kelley v. Chater, 62 F.3d 335, 337 (10th Cir. 1995)). On the other hand, the court must examine the entire record-including any evidence that may detract from the decision of the ALJ. Jaramillo v. Massanari, 21 F.Appx. 792, 794 (10th Cir. 2001) (citing Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994)). The party challenging the action bears the burden of establishing that any error prejudiced the party. St. Anthony v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 309 F.3d 680, 691 (10th Cir. 2002). If a claimant has a history of drug abuse or alcoholism ("DAA"), the ALJ must perform a two-step test:
1. Considering all of the claimant's impairments together, including drug and alcohol use, is the claimant disabled?
2. If the claimant is found to be disabled, is claimant's DAA material to the finding that claimant is disabled?
See S.S.R. 13-2P, 2013 WL 621536, at *4 (S.S.A. Feb. 20, 2013).
Plaintiff claims that the ALJ's decision cannot be supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff argues that the RFC found by the ALJ is not based on substantial evidence in the record because (1) the ALJ failed to provide a narrative bridge linking the medical evidence with the limitations, (2) the RFC does not reflect the substantial evidence of record, (3) the ALJ failed to assess weight to every opinion in the record, and assessed the most weight to medical experts, and (4) the ALJ failed to reconcile a discrepancy in the testimony of the two VEs. The court disagrees.
The ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. While plaintiff is perhaps correct that the ALJ did not provide a detailed narrative bridge between the medical evidence and the limitations in the RFC, there is a sufficiently clear narrative: Plaintiff would not be disabled but for his DAA. The ALJ begins by discussing the testimony proffered by plaintiff and his family. The ALJ also noted that plaintiff has had numerous opportunities to medically establish some of his claimed impairments, but has declined to do so. Multiple treating doctors recommended plaintiff undergo a sleep study to establish that he has narcolepsy and/or be tested for ADHD. Plaintiff has not done so. Indeed, the main reason plaintiff has not undergone a sleep study to establish his claimed narcolepsy is because the test requires he be stimulant-free for two weeks prior to the sleep study. Plaintiff has alleged he cannot function without stimulants.
Plaintiff has stayed at various treatment centers or hospitals since 2009. Almost every stay has resulted in a positive test for some sort of drug: cocaine, amphetamines, or marijuana. On April 9, 2013, plaintiff allegedly attempted to overdose on medication when the Shawnee Mission Medical Center was releasing him, causing a further nine day stay. All of this led the ALJ to conclude: "The claimant's polysubstance abuse, which includes the abuse of cocaine, amphetamines, and marijuana is a severe impairment. It underlies all inpatient stays and most emergency room visits." (Doc. 8-4 at 23.) Many of these same facts led the ALJ to conclude that plaintiff's testimony is not credible. ( See id. at 20 n.4; 23, 26 n.9.)
The ALJ found that if plaintiff ceased substance use, he would:
Have the [RFC] to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: he must avoid concentrated exposure to gasses, fumes, dust, humidity, and other environmental irritants. He is restricted to superficial interaction with co-workers and supervisions and cannot ...