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Rinke v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

April 17, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          UR. Brooke Jackson, nited States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on review of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) Commissioner's decision denying claimant Christopher Thomas Rinke's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the Court reverses and remands the Commissioner's decision.


         This appeal is based upon the administrative record and the parties' briefs. In reviewing a final decision by the Commissioner, the District Court examines the record and determines whether it contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996). A decision is not based on substantial evidence if it is “overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Bernal v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 297, 299 (10th Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence requires “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Evidence is not substantial if it “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). Reversal may also be appropriate if the Commissioner applies an incorrect legal standard or fails to demonstrate that the correct legal standards have been followed. Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1019.


         Mr. Rinke is 56 years old. ECF No. 16 at 3. He completed a bachelor's degree and worked as an engineer for many years. Id. (citing R. 95, 247, 299-300, 2193). He lost his job in 2008 after a motorcycle accident, and he last worked in 2011. R. 60, 276. Mr. Rinke alleges that he became disabled in July 2013 primarily due to back pain, but he also alleges that he suffers from a variety of other medical issues, including post-concussive syndrome following a head injury; degenerative disc disease of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine; dysfunction of both shoulders; obesity; diabetes with peripheral neuropathy and diabetic retinopathy; venous insufficiency causing peripheral edema; coronary artery disease; gastroesophageal reflux disorder; memory and concentration problems; affective disorder; and alcoholism. ECF No. 15 at 3; ECF No. 16 at 3.

         A. Procedural History.

         Mr. Rinke filed a claim for disability insurance benefits on September 20, 2012. R. 86. Mr. Rinke initially alleged disability beginning May 2007 following a motorcycle accident; he later amended his alleged onset date of disability to July 1, 2013. ECF No. 16 at 3 n.5; see also R. 13, 72, 121. His initial claim for disability benefits was denied on February 4, 2013. R. 104. Mr. Rinke then requested a hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) William Musseman on January 28, 2014. R. 47. The ALJ issued a decision denying benefits on March 13, 2014. R. 16, 110. The Appeals Council remanded this decision by an order dated September 1, 2015. R. 16, 105. After a second hearing on January 7, 2016, the same ALJ issued another unfavorable decision on February 10, 2016. R. 13, 16, 202. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Rinke's Request for Review on February 24, 2017, thus rendering the ALJ's determination the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. R. 1. Mr. Rinke filed a timely appeal in this Court. This appeal has been briefed, although Mr. Rinke did not file a reply. See ECF Nos. 15, 16.

         B. The ALJ's Decision.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision after evaluating the evidence according to the SSA's standard five-step process. R. 13-36. Because substance abuse was an issue in this case, the ALJ was required to determine whether substance abuse was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1535(a). To do so, the ALJ conducted the five-step process twice: first to determine whether Mr. Rinke would be considered disabled when taking the substance abuse into account, and second to determine whether Mr. Rinke would still be considered disabled without taking into account the substance abuse. See Sax v. Colvin, 31 F.Supp.3d 1156, 1161 (E.D. Wa. 2014).

         i. The ALJ's Determination Accounting for Substance Abuse.

         At the first step in the assessment in which the ALJ accounted for Mr. Rinke's substance abuse, the ALJ found that Mr. Rinke had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of July 1, 2013. R. 19. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Rinke had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical spine; status post closed head injury; affective disorder; dysfunction of the left shoulder; substance abuse; and obesity. Id. The ALJ found that two of Mr. Rinke's alleged conditions or impairments either did not represent medically determinable impairments or were nonsevere, namely acute displaced fracture of the distal left clavicle and difficulties with vision. Id. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Rinke did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id.

         The ALJ then found that Mr. Rinke retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work except that he cannot perform work at over chest level, cannot climb ladders or scaffolds, and cannot use foot or leg controls. R. 22. Mr. Rinke was deemed capable of performing work at the special vocational preparation level of SVP 2 or less, with occasional interaction with the public. Id. Mr. Rinke “would have multiple absences from the workplace each month due to alcohol abuse.” Id. The ALJ reached this conclusion based on his assessment that while Mr. Rinke's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, ” Mr. Rinke's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible.” R. 18.

         At step four the ALJ determined that Mr. Rinke is unable to perform any of his past relevant work. R. 29. At step five the ALJ found that there are no jobs in the national economy that Mr. Rinke is able to perform. R. 30. Thus, the ALJ concluded that “considering all the claimant's medically determinable impairments, including drug and alcohol abuse, the claimant's impairments are disabling.” R. 29; see also R. 31.

         ii. The ALJ's Determination ...

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