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Carr v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

March 6, 2017

MELISSA R. CARR, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Hon. William T. Lawrence, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Melissa R. Carr requests judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), denying Carr's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Insurance Benefits (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). The Court, having reviewed the record and the briefs of the parties, now rules as follows.


         Carr protectively filed for DIB on May 16, 2012, alleging she became disabled on January 10, 2009. She filed for SSI on May 23, 2012. Carr's application was denied initially on August 30, 2012, and again upon reconsideration on January 2, 2013. Following the denial upon reconsideration, Carr requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The hearing, during which Carr was represented by counsel, was held on April 14, 2014, before ALJ Albert J. Velasquez. The ALJ issued his decision on June 13, 2014, denying Carr's claims. Carr requested review by the Appeals Council, and on October 5, 2015, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision. Thereafter, Carr filed this timely appeal.


         Disability is defined as “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death, or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In order to be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that his physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only his previous work, but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled, despite his medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i).[2] At step two, if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment (i.e., one that significantly limits his ability to perform basic work activities), he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelve- month duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled, 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At step five, if the claimant can perform any other work in the national economy, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         If the claimant is disabled and there is medical evidence of drug addiction or alcoholism, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, unless the claimant is otherwise eligible for benefits due to age or blindness. 20 C.F.R. § 416.935. The ALJ evaluates the extent to which the claimant's mental and physical limitations would remain if the claimant stopped using drugs or alcohol. Id. If the remaining limitations would not be disabling, the substance use disorders are a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, and the claimant is not disabled. Id.

         In reviewing the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's findings of fact are conclusive and must be upheld by this court “so long as substantial evidence supports them and no error of law occurred.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). “Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” id., and this Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ, Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008). In order to be affirmed, the ALJ must articulate his analysis of the evidence in his decision; while he “is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, ” he must “provide an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and [his] conclusion that a claimant is not disabled.” Kastner v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 642, 646 (7th Cir. 2012). “If a decision lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, a remand is required.” Id. (citation omitted).


         ALJ Velasquez determined at step one that Carr had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 10, 2009, the alleged disability onset date. Record at 17. At step two, the ALJ concluded that Carr had the severe impairments of insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, cirrhosis of the liver, Hepatitis C, chronic pancreatitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, alcohol dependence, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder, as well as the non-severe impairments of hypertension and tinnitus. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Carr's impairments meet Listings 12.04 and 12.09 when she is engaged in substance abuse. Id. He determined that, if Carr stopped abusing substances, she would continue to have severe impairments or combination of impairments, but that she would not have an impairment or combination of impairments that would meet or medically equal any listed impairment. Id. at 18-19. At step four, the ALJ determined that Carr would have the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”), if her substance abuse stopped:

[T]he claimant would have the [RFC] to perform light work . . . as the claimant can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand and/or walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. The claimant needs work that allows her to alternate between sitting and standing at her option for 1-2 minutes each hour. The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds but can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; and occasionally balance, stoop, and crouch but never kneel or crawl. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, gases, respiratory irritants, extreme heat/cold, and humidity. The claimant must avoid work at unprotected heights or work around dangerous moving machinery, open flames, and large bodies of water. The claimant cannot operate a motor vehicle. The work should not require more than 2-3 steps per tasks [sic]. The claimant needs work that does not require more than superficial interaction with the public, coworkers or supervisors.

R. at 21.

         The ALJ determined that Carr had no past relevant work, but would be capable of performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy if she stopped abusing substances. R. at 28. Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Carr's substance abuse disorder was a contributing factor material to the determination of her disability and that, as a result, from the alleged ...

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