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Greenwood v. Astrue

November 15, 2010

TIMOTHY GREENWOOD, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosalyn M. Chapman United States Magistrate Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Timothy Greenwood filed a complaint on September 28, 2009, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying his application for disability benefits. On February 16, 2010, the Commissioner answered the complaint, and the parties filed a joint stipulation on March 31, 2010.

BACKGROUND

On April 24, 2007, plaintiff, who was born on December 25, 1960, applied for disability benefits under the Supplemental Security Income program ("SSI") of Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), claiming an inability to work since July 4, 2005, due to bipolar and psychotic disorders. Certified Administrative Record ("A.R.") 124-26. The plaintiff's application was initially denied on August 21, 2007, and was denied again on December 21, 2007, following reconsideration. A.R. 63-67, 70-75. The plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge Charles E. Stevenson ("the ALJ") on May 21, 2009. A.R. 38-58, 76. On July 14, 2009, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff is not disabled.

A.R. 5-20. The plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council, which denied review on September 1, 2009. A.R. 1-4.

DISCUSSION

I.

The Court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), has the authority to review the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff disability benefits to determine if his findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner used the proper legal standards in reaching his decision. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009); Vernoff v. Astrue, 568 F.3d 1102, 1105 (9th Cir. 2009).

The claimant is "disabled" for the purpose of receiving benefits under the Act if he is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to an impairment which has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). "The claimant bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability." Roberts v. Shalala, 66 F.3d 179, 182 (9th Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 517 U.S. 1122 (1996); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1289 (9th Cir. 1996).

The Commissioner has promulgated regulations establishing a five-step sequential evaluation process for the ALJ to follow in a disability case. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. In the First Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). If not, in the Second Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting him from performing basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). If so, in the Third Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the requirements of the Listing of Impairments ("Listing"), 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, App. 1. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). If not, in the Fourth Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has sufficient residual functional capacity despite the impairment or various limitations to perform his past work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). If not, in Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g). Moreover, where there is evidence of a mental impairment that may prevent a claimant from working, the Commissioner has supplemented the five-step sequential evaluation process with additional regulations addressing mental impairments.*fn1 Maier v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 154 F.3d 913, 914-15 (9th Cir. 1998) (per curiam).

However, "[a] finding of 'disabled' under the five-step inquiry does not automatically qualify a claimant for disability benefits." Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 954 (9th Cir. 2001); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007), cert. denied, 552 U.S. 1141 (2008). Rather, the Act provides that "[a]n individual shall not be considered 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). "[T]he claimant bears the burden of proving that drug or alcohol addiction is not a contributing factor material to his disability." Parra, 481 F.3d at 744-45, 748; Ball v. Massanari, 254 F.3d 817, 821 (9th Cir. 2001).

"The 'key factor . . . in determining whether drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability' is whether an individual would still be found disabled if [he] stopped using alcohol or drugs." Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1245 (9th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.935(b)(1) (same). "In making this determination, [the ALJ] will evaluate which of [the claimant's] current physical and mental limitations . . . would remain if [the claimant] stopped using drugs or alcohol and then determine whether any or all of [the claimant's] remaining limitations would be disabling." 20 C.F.R. § 416.935(b)(2). "If the remaining limitations would still be disabling, then the claimant's drug addiction or alcoholism is not a contributing factor material to his disability." Parra, 481 F.3d at 747. "If [the] . . . remaining limitations would not be disabling, [the ALJ] will find that [the claimant's] drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability[,]" 20 C.F.R. § 416.935(b)(2)(i); Parra, 481 F.3d at 747, and benefits will be denied.

For individuals such as plaintiff, who have a substance abuse problem, the ALJ:

must first conduct the five-step inquiry without separating out the impact of alcoholism or drug addiction. If the ALJ finds that the claimant is not disabled under the five-step inquiry, then the claimant is not entitled to benefits and there is no need to proceed with the analysis under 20 C.F.R. § . . . 416.935. If the ALJ finds that the claimant is disabled and there is "medical evidence of [his or her] drug addiction or alcoholism," then the ALJ should proceed under § ...


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