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Foster v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Columbia

September 29, 2015

RONALD C. FOSTER, Plaintiff,

          RONALD C. FOSTER, Plaintiff, Pro se, Washington, DC.

         For CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Social Security Administration, Defendant: Alexander Lee Cristaudo, Maija Pelly DiDomenico, LEAD ATTORNEYS, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Philadelphia, PA.

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         JOHN D. BATES, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff brings this action under section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for review of the denial of his application for supplemental security income benefits. This matter is before the Court on plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal [ECF No. 23] and defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance [ECF No. 24]. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will deny the former and grant the latter.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income benefits (" SSI" ) on the basis of a disability beginning on April 4, 2011.[1] Administrative Record (" A.R." ) 10. The application was denied on June 6, 2011, see A.R. 68-75, and plaintiff's request for reconsideration was later denied as well, see A.R. 78-85. Plaintiff requested a hearing

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before an Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ), see A.R. 102-04, and the hearing took place on October 3, 2012, see A.R. 23-52, 114-18. After the hearing and " careful consideration of all the evidence," the ALJ determined that plaintiff " is under a disability, but that a substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability." A.R. 11. For this reason, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not " disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from the date the application was filed through the date of [his] decision." Id. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, see A.R. 1-3, and the ALJ's decision therefore became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (" SSA" ), A.R. 1.


         The Court's review of the SSA's final decision " is statutorily confined to determining whether the . . . decision . . . is supported by substantial evidence in the record." Brown v. Bowen, 794 F.2d 703, 705, 253 U.S.App.D.C. 409 (D.C. Cir. 1986); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is " more than a mere scintilla [and] means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938)) (internal quotation marks omitted). " Substantial-evidence review is highly deferential to the agency fact-finder," Rossello ex rel. Rossello v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 1181, 1185, 381 U.S.App.D.C. 477 (D.C. Cir. 2008), and the Court will uphold the SSA's determination as long as " it is based on substantial evidence in the record and correctly applies the relevant legal standards," Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 999, 359 U.S.App.D.C. 267 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (citations omitted).

         An individual is disabled for SSI purposes " if he is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual is " 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." Id. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The individual must prove that he is disabled by providing medical and other evidence that the SSA can use to reach conclusions about his alleged impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a). Evidence may include medical reports, laboratory test results, and the claimant's own statements about his impairments. See id. § § 416.912(b), 416.913. If an individual's " drug addiction would . . . be a contributing factor material to the [SSA's] determination that the individual is disabled," the individual " shall not be considered to be disabled" for purposes of SSI. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(J).

         The SSA employs a " sequential evaluation process . . of five 'steps,'" 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4), to determine whether an adult claimant who has applied for SSI is disabled, id. § 416.920(a)(2). The Court, which is authorized " to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [SSA], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing," 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), reviews the ALJ's determination that plaintiff is not disabled. " The findings of the [SSA] as to any fact, if

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supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive[.]" Id.

         A. Step One

         At Step One, the SSA considers the claimant's work activity. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). A claimant who is working and whose work is substantial gainful activity is " not disabled regardless of [his] medical condition, . . . age, education, and work experience." Id. § 416.920(b); see id. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). " Substantial work activity . . . involves doing significant physical or mental activities." Id. § 416.972(a). " Gainful work activity is work activity that [a claimant does] for pay or profit," and " [w]ork activity is gainful if it is the kind of work activity usually done for pay or profit, whether or not profit is realized." Id. § 416.972(b).

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful work activity since his application date, April 4, 2011. A.R. 12; see A.R. 26, 28.

         B. Step Two

         At Step Two, the SSA considers the medical severity of a claimant's impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). A claimant without an " impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [his] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . do[es] not have a severe impairment and [is], therefore, not disabled," regardless of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. Id. § 416.920(c); see id. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment is severe if " it . . . significantly limit[s a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities," id. ยง 416.921(a), such as " ...

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