United States District Court, D. Colorado
Brooke Jackson, nited States District Judge
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.
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.
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.
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.
The ALJ's Decision.
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).
The ALJ's Determination Accounting for Substance
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.
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.
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.
The ALJ's Determination ...