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Sutherland v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 31, 2014

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


PHILIP A. BRIMMER, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on plaintiff Adam Sutherland's complaint [Docket No. 1], filed on July 20, 2012. Plaintiff seeks review of the final decision of defendant Carolyn W. Colvin (the "Commissioner") denying plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-83c.[1] The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


On January 21, 2009, plaintiff applied for disability benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Act. R. at 14. Plaintiff alleged that he had been disabled since September 23, 2008. Id. After an initial administrative denial of his claim, plaintiff received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on November 3, 2010. Id. On December 17, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim. Id. at 24.

The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "left shoulder disorder, left elbow disorder, bipolar disorder with psychotic features, personality disorder, and polysubstance use and dependence including alcohol, hallucinogens, methamphetamines, and marijuana." Id. at 17. The ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments meet listings 12.04 (affective disorders), 12.08 (personality disorders), and 12.09 (substance addiction disorders) of C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 17. The ALJ further found that, if plaintiff stopped using substances, his remaining impairments would qualify as severe, but would no longer meet any of the listed impairments and that plaintiff would have the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to

perform work at all exertional levels with the following exertional and non-exertional limitations: he is able to do frequent pushing and pulling with his left non-dominant upper extremity, can do occasional reaching above the shoulder with his left non-dominant upper extremity; mentally, the claimant cannot perform any work involving safety operations or responsibility for the safety of others; the claimant should not have any direct exposure in the workplace to alcohol, marijuana, and illegal drugs; and the claimant is able to have only occasional, non-intense interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and the public.

R. at 19. Based upon this RFC and in reliance on the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ concluded that the claimant would be able to perform his past relevant work if he were to stop using substances. R. at 24.

The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of this denial. R. at 1. Consequently, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in (1) failing to properly apply the five-step evaluation process in determining whether substance abuse could be a material factor contributing to plaintiff's disability; (2) finding that plaintiff is dependent on methamphetamines; (3) failing to determine what plaintiff's RFC would be if he continued to use alcohol and other substances; (4) failing to discuss the opinions of several treating physicians included in plaintiff's medical record; and (5) relying on impermissible factors in assessing plaintiff's credibility.


A. Standard of Review

Review of the Commissioner's finding that a claimant is not disabled is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003). The district court may not reverse an ALJ simply because the court may have reached a different result based on the record; the question instead is whether there is substantial evidence showing that the ALJ was justified in his decision. See Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007). Moreover, "[e]vidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion." Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). The district court will not "reweigh the evidence or retry the case, " but must "meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met." Flaherty, 515 F.3d at 1070. Nevertheless, "if the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal test, there is a ground for reversal apart from a lack of substantial evidence." Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993).

B. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must have a medically determinable physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months that prevents the claimant from performing any substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)-(2). Furthermore,

[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A) (2006). The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, ...

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