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Wilson v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

January 30, 2015

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


DANIEL D. CRABTREE, District Judge.

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Lamound Wilson seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner") denying his application for benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, as amended. Plaintiff has filed a brief asking the Court to reverse or remand the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 16) Plaintiff also filed a separate Motion to Remand (Doc. 19) because the Commissioner awarded him benefits for a later disability period. The Commissioner has filed a response brief (Doc. 22) addressing the arguments plaintiff raised in his initial brief and in his Motion to Remand. This matter ripened for decision when plaintiff did not file a reply to the Commissioner's response brief within the 14-day time limit provided by D. Kan. Rule 6.1(d). Having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefs, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff benefits.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

In May 2010, plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits ("SSD") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1385. (R. 12) The Commissioner denied plaintiff's claims initially and denied them again upon reconsideration. ( Id. ) On July 27, 2012, following a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") concluded that plaintiff was not disabled as the term is defined in the Social Security Act. (R. 12-21) On August 14, 2013, the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's request for review. (R. 2-4) Plaintiff has exhausted his administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner, subject to judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

Plaintiff was born in January 1959 and alleges that his period of disability began on January 1, 2008. (R. 144, 48) In his Disability Report, plaintiff asserts that he is disabled because of "arthritis, depression, [a] bad knee, " and a "bad hip." (R. 184)

Plaintiff is a veteran and has received most of his medical care from doctors at VA Medical Centers. (R. 243-301, 335-530) During past visits to doctors, he complained that he struggled with left knee and ankle pain. (R. 390) He also complained of neck pain, lower-back pain, and pain in his hands. ( Id. ) Plaintiff believes that his work history, which includes work at a meat packing plant, has exacerbated his physical ailments. (R. 387) His physical problems have worsened in recent years. ( Id. ) Treating physicians' records reflect that plaintiff has a history of lower-back and knee pain, spondylosis, degenerative changes, disc herniation in the cervical and lumbar spine, and difficulties with his upper extremities. (R. 514) In 2011, doctors diagnosed him with right cubital tunnel syndrome of the ulnar nerve and carpal-metacarpal anthropathy in his right hand. (R. 334) Doctors also noted right thumb problems, and x-rays showed some degenerative joint disease of the right thumb and a right shoulder impingement. (R. 343-44)

After reporting that his hand problems had worsened, plaintiff underwent surgery in June 2011 to repair the cubital tunnel entrapment doctors had diagnosed previously. (R. 480) Plaintiff tolerated the procedure well and doctors expected his hand condition to improve. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff's physical deficits, though they had taken some toll on his ability to work, did not preclude all gainful work. (R. 16) On appeal, plaintiff has not challenged the ALJ's conclusions about his physical impairments.

In addition to physical impairments, plaintiff also alleges mental impairments, which the ALJ found to be the "core of this case." (R. 16) Plaintiff concedes much of his mental impairments exist because he abuses several substances, including alcohol, cannabis, and cocaine. (R. 326) Plaintiff reports that he drinks 1-1.5 pints of alcohol daily and has consumed alcohol at the same or greater levels for the last 25 years. ( Id. ) He also reports using marijuana once or twice a week, and smoking and snorting crack cocaine. ( Id. ) Plaintiff last received substance abuse treatment in 1989 and has had little success overcoming his substance abuse problems. (R. 326)

Although plaintiff recognizes that many of his mental health issues are attributable drug and alcohol abuse ("DAA"), he asserts that he suffers from disabling mental health problems independent of DAA. Specifically, plaintiff alleges that he suffers from work preclusive depression and cognitive deficits. (R. 16) The ALJ concluded that plaintiff, accounting for both plaintiff's DAA and non-DAA related mental impairments, had a work preclusive disability. (R. 18-19)

About one year after the ALJ issued the July 27, 2012 decision denying plaintiff benefits, plaintiff filed a new application alleging a disability onset of September 23, 2013. The Commissioner agreed. (Doc. 19 at 2) Although the Court lacks evidence about the precise basis for the Commissioner's decision to award benefits, it seems the Commissioner concluded that plaintiff's mental and/or physical impairments prevented him from engaging in substantially gainful employment, and that DAA was not a material factor contributing to his disabling conditions. ( Id. ) Following the award of benefits for this post-September 2013 period of disability, plaintiff filed a Motion to Remand (Doc. 19).

Plaintiff's motion argues that the Commissioner's favorable decision is inconsistent with the first decision denying plaintiff benefits because the Commissioner reached a different conclusion while "likely considering" the same evidence. ( Id .) According to plaintiff, this inconsistency satisfies 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)'s "good cause" standard for remanding a case to the Commissioner for reconsideration.

II. Legal Standards

A. Standard of Review

Plaintiff's request for review and Motion to Remand each invoke the Court's power of judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Section 405(g) grants federal courts authority to conduct judicial review of final decisions of the Commissioner and "enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision... with or without remanding the case for a rehearing." Judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits is limited to whether substantial evidence in the record supports the factual findings and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Cowan v. Astrue, 552 F.3d 1182, 1184-85 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)). "If supported by substantial evidence, the Secretary's findings are conclusive and must be affirmed." Sisco v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 10 F.3d 739, 741 (10th Cir. 1993) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971).

"Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084. It must be "more than a scintilla, " although it need not be a preponderance. Id . While courts "consider whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, " they neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute their judgment for the Commissioner's. Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). But they also do not accept "the findings of the Commissioner" mechanically or affirm those findings "by isolating facts and labeling them substantial evidence, as the court[s] must scrutinize the entire record in determining whether the Commissioner's conclusions are rational." Alfrey v. Astrue, 904 F.Supp.2d 1165, 1167 (D. Kan. 2012). When determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, courts "examine the record as a whole, including whatever in the record fairly detracts from the weight of the Commissioner's decision." Id. "Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence, particularly certain types of evidence ( e.g., that offered by treating physicians) or if it really constitutes not evidence but mere conclusion." Lawton v. Barnhart, 121 F.Appx. 364, 366 (10th Cir. 2005) (quoting Frey v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 508, 512 (10th Cir. 1987)).

Accordingly, the Court will review the ALJ's decision denying plaintiff benefits to determine whether it is "free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence." Wall ...

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