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Early v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Francisco Division

August 1, 2014

RONALD EARLY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER ON CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT RE: DKT. NOS. 10, 16

NATHANAEL M. COUSINS, Magistrate Judge.

Ronald Early seeks reversal of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision finding him not disabled and ineligible for disability benefits under the Social Security Act. Both parties move for summary judgment. The issue before the Court is whether substantial evidence supports the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) determination that Early's substance use is a contributing factor material to the determination of his disability. The Court finds that the ALJ provided specific and legitimate reasons for the weighing of the physician opinions and that the ALJ's finding that substance use is a contributing factor material to the determination of Early's disability is supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the Court DENIES Early's motion for summary judgment, GRANTS the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and AFFIRMS the final decision of the Commissioner.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Agency Review

Early filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act in April 2010. (AR 179-86.) Early alleged disability due to auditory hallucinations beginning March 21, 2010. (AR 179-80, 183.) The Social Security Administration denied his initial applications on September 30, 2010, and upon reconsideration on November 5, 2010. (AR 80-83.)

B. Administrative Review

Early requested a hearing before an ALJ on January 7, 2011. (AR 98.) On January 26, 2012, ALJ Timothy Stueve held a hearing at which Early, Early's sister, and a vocational expert testified. (AR 31-78.)

1. Testimony at the January 26, 2012, Hearing

At the hearing Early testified about his educational level, previous work experience, medical impairments, and substance use. (AR 35-59.) Early's sister, JoAnn Braziel also testified at the hearing about Early's background, mental condition, and alcohol use. (AR 59-72.) Early testified that he has been hearing voices for a little over two years. (AR 43.) However, Braziel testified that Early has been talking to a "third party" for the past ten to fifteen years. (AR 60-61). Early stated that he last worked as a welder about three years but was laid off because he was talking to himself and hearing voices on the job. (AR 37-39.) When the ALJ asked Early about a treatment report that indicated Early was "actively using drugs at the time [he was] hearing voices, " Early responded, "[i]t's a possibility" that he "stopped using" drugs because of the voices. (AR 38.) Early testified that he has been regularly taking Zoloft and Abilify for about one year, but that he still hears voices in the background. (AR 41, 43.) Early further testified that he still hears voices despite episodes of claimed sobriety. (AR 57.) Regarding his alcohol use, Early testified that he uses "[e]very now and then, not often, " and that he could not recall the last time he drank to intoxication. (AR 44.) Braziel testified that she knows Early continues to drink but that his medications have "calmed him down." (AR 67-68).

2. The ALJ's Findings

On February 1, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision determining that Early "is under a disability, but that a substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of Early's disability." (AR 16.) Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process for determining disability, the ALJ first found that Early had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 21, 2010. (AR 18.) At the second step, the ALJ found that Early had only one severe impairment: alcohol abuse. Id. The ALJ found that there is "some evidence in the record of a substance induced psychotic disorder NOS, " as the "claimant alleges that he hears voices." Id. But the ALJ concluded that this impairment is "non-severe" because it does not "cause more than minimal limitations in the ability to perform basic work activities... [and] [i]n addition... it would not be present if the claimant were to stop substance abuse." Id. At the third step, the ALJ determined that Early did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. Id.

At the fourth step, after considering all the impairments, including the substance use disorder, the ALJ found that Early "has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: marked difficulties in maintaining attention and concentration and attendance...." (AR 18.) At the hearing, the vocational expert, testified that there are no jobs in the national or local economy for a person with marked limitations, defined as limitations that seriously interfere with the ability to function independently, appropriately, and effectively. (AR 74.) Based on this testimony, the ALJ determined that Early is unable to perform any past relevant work as a welder and/or boilermaker requiring a heavy level of exertion. (AR 19.) At the fifth step, considering Early's age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, based on all impairments, the ALJ found that there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Early can perform. (AR 19.) The ALJ concluded that Early's "ability to perform work at all exertional levels has been compromised by nonexertional limitations from all of the impairments including the substance use disorder." (AR 19.)

However, the ALJ found that if Early "stopped the substance use, the remaining limitations would not cause more than a minimal impact on his ability to perform basic work activities." (AR 20.) The ALJ concluded that "[t]he preponderance of evidence shows that the claimant's voices' accompany his substance abuse and that, during periods of incarceration and presumed sobriety, his mental health symptoms diminished." (AR 23-24.) The ALJ held that absent substance abuse, ...


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