United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin
DECISION AND ORDER
HON RUDOLPH T. RANDA U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.
Plaintiff-Claimant Barbara Lee Dumas appeals the denial of her application for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. The Court is reviewing the determination of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who, having conducted a hearing, found that Dumas has severe impairments of substance addiction disorder, depression, panic disorder, personality disorder not otherwise specified (NOS), and status post cerebrovascular accident. (Tr. 22, ECF No. 14.) He further found that Dumas’ impairments including the substance use disorder meet §§ 12.04, 12.06, and 12.09 of the Listing of Impairments of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. However, he also found that without substance abuse Dumas’ remaining impairments would be severe, but the impairments or combination of impairments would not meet the Listing; and Dumas would have the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), with the limitations that she could not balance or climb ladders or scaffolds, and must avoid heights and hazards. She would have no limitations in using her right hand and could use her left hand to assist with lifting and carrying, but she could not feel or finger with her left hand. In addition, she would be limited to simple routine work (SVP 1-2) that does not require contact with the general public or more than occasional contact with co-workers or supervisors. (Tr. 25.) In finding Dumas not disabled, the ALJ further determined that based on Dumas’ age, limited education, lack of past relevant work experience, and RFC, there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy she could perform including as a janitor, street cleaner, and inspector, as identified by the vocational expert (VE). (Tr. 30-31.) The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ’s decision, making it the final determination of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-3.) 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013).
Dumas contends that (1) the ALJ’s findings that substance abuse was a contributing factor to her disability and that without the abuse she would not be disabled are not supported by substantial evidence; (2) in assessing Dumas’ credibility the ALJ did not comply with the requirements of Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-7p and Seventh Circuit case law; and (3) the ALJ’s hypothetical to the VE was incomplete.
To uphold the denial of benefits, the ALJ’s decision must be supported by substantial evidence, which is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the Court reviews the record as a whole but does not attempt to substitute its judgment for the ALJ’s by reweighing the evidence, resolving material conflicts, or reconsidering facts or the credibility of witnesses. Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 836-37 (7th Cir. 2014).
The ALJ must articulate, at least minimally, his analysis of all relevant evidence, Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994), and “the [ALJ’s] decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues, ” Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Additionally, the ALJ must “build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).
An ALJ’s credibility determination is entitled to “special deference.” Schomas, 732 F.3d at 708. The Court will reverse an ALJ’s credibility finding only if it is patently wrong. See Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 367 (7th Cir. 2013).
Substance Abuse Assessment
In contending that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s finding that substance abuse was a contributing factor to her disability, Dumas relies on the following excerpt from SSR 13-2p:
a. Many people with DAA have co-occurring mental disorders; that is, a mental disorder(s) diagnosed by an acceptable medical source in addition to their DAA. We do not know of any research data that we can use to predict reliably that any given claimant’s co-occurring mental disorder would improve, or the extent to which it would improve, if the claimant were to stop using drugs or alcohol.
b. To support a finding that DAA is material, we must have evidence in the case record that establishes that a claimant with a co-occurring mental disorder(s) would not be disabled in the absence of DAA. Unlike cases involving physical impairments, we do not permit adjudicators to rely exclusively on medical expertise and the nature of a claimant’s mental disorder.
2013 WL 621536, at * 9 (Feb. 20, 2013, eff. March 22, 2013) corrections listed in 2013 WL 1221979 (March 22, 2013). (Emphasis added.)
Dumas contends that the ALJ erred in giving great weight to treating physician Dr. Asma Iqbal’s opinion to support his finding that Dumas’ substance abuse disorder was material to her disability. (Pl. Br. 18-19, ECF No. 18.) Dumas maintains that the ALJ erred when he cited Iqbal’s report as indicating that she was still using heroin in 2011 (see Tr. 24), asserting that she testified she had not used since November 2010.
The colloquy on the issue between the ALJ and Dumas spans more than a transcript page. The discussion of when Dumas was using heroin and when she stopped was wandering, somewhat confusing, and must be considered in as a whole. (Tr. 52-53.)
The ALJ asked Dumas whether she had used heroin since November 2010. (Tr. 52.) Dumas initially stated “since 2010? I used heroin in 2010 to ’11, because I went to the Meta House and I got on a methadone program.” (Id.) She also testified that she got kicked out of the program in November 2011, because she smoked a joint, and that the day before she entered Meta House was the last day she used heroin. (Tr. 52-53.) Considered as a whole, ...