SPEAKS v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
OPINION. Signed by Judge Kevin McNulty on 16-2726. (JB, )
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
Civ. No. 16—2726 (KM)
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,
KEVIN MCNULTY, U.S.D.J.:
Chrissy Speaks brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
and 405(g) to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying her claim for supplemental social security income
(“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.
§ 138 1-83(fl. She
suffers from diabetes, asthma, pancreatitis, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder,
personality disorder, and alcoholism. On October 28, 2014, Administrative Law
Judge Dma Lowey concluded that those conditions in combination are
disabling, But because the AW found Speaks’ substance abuse to be a
contributing material factor to her disability, benefits were denied.1
I find no fault with the AW’s thorough analysis of the record overall.
The AW’s ultimate decision to deny benefits, however, essentially hinged on a
single, inadequately explained difference between two RFC determinations,
which requires further development. The difference was attributed to substance
This Court exercises a plenary review of all legal issues. Schaudeck t.’. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). This Court adheres to the ALPs findings
so long as they are supported by substantial evidence. Jones ii. Bamhart, 364 F.3d
501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Where facts are disputed, this
Court will “determine whether the administrative record contains substantial evidence
supporting the findings.” Sykes u. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000).
abuse, i.e., alcoholism, and the AU attempted to isolate the extent to which
Speaks’s impairments were attributable to alcoholism, a difficult task.2 (R. 17)
In the course of doing so, the AU performed two RFC analyses.
For the first RFC, the AU considered all of Speaks’s impairments.
Given Speaks’s medical source records and two consultative examiner’s
reports, the AU concluded that although she had the capacity to perform some
light work, Speaks would be off task for 20% of the workday. (R. 15-16)
For the second RFC, the AU considered all of Speaks’ impairments
except her substance abuse disorder. But for her drinking, the AU found,
Speaks would have had the capacity to perform the same type of light work as
defined in the first REt, but she would not be off task at all during the
workday. In other words, the AU found that all of Speaks’ inability to stay on
task was attributable to alcoholism, and none attributable to her other
impairments. Because Speaks has have the
work a significant
number of jobs that exist in the national economy, but for the limitations
imposed by her substance abuse disorder, the AU denied benefits. (1?. 19-20)
That conclusion, however, lacks the analysis and reasoning necessary
for this Court to exercise its review function. Specifically, the decision fails to
explain why Speaks’ inability to stay on-task is attributable only to substance
abuse and not at all to her mental impairments. The AU, to be sure, gave
reasons for why she thought that the subjective symptoms of those mental
disorders were exaggerated.3 That, however, is not really the problem. What is
missing any evidence-based explanation or description of the correspondence
between Speaks’s alcohol abuse and her inability to stay on task.
Citations to the record are abbreviated “R.
The AU leaned heavily on the treatment records of Dr. Saleem Mahmood, M.D.,
which the AU thought failed to corroborate Speaks’ mental impairments. However,
several of those records indicate that Speaks had previously attempted suicide,
although she denied suicidal ideation at that time. (R. 889-1004) Dr. Mahmood,
moreover, seems to be a general practitioner, not a psychiatrist.
Such a one-to-one correspondence, while not wholly implausible,
cannot simply be assumed. In the first RFC analysis, the AU states that the
two consultative examiners reported “a significant impairment in maintaining
concentration, persistence or pace while abusing alcohol.” (R. 15). That,
however, is not precisely what the examiners said. The first examiner actually
offered a more nuanced opinion: Although Speaks appeared to have difficulty
focusing and recalling objects, the examiner was uncertain about the interplay
between Speaks’ mental illness and substance abuse. (R. 960) (“It is unclear.
• to what extent or in what way, if any, that Chrissy’s alcohol abuse is related
to the psychologically based symptoms that she may experience. In any case, it
appears the current limitations in social and occupational functioning that she
may experience are related to her alcohol dependence, psychiatric illness, [and]
overall disturbance in personality
.“)) The second report does not link
Speaks’s concentration difficulties to alcoholism; Speaks, of course, did not
help matters by reporting to the examiner that she “occasionally drinks a beer.”
The AU’s view of the case may have caused her to fail to give due
weight to a salient piece of evidence. Speaks, recall, was found likely to be offtask 20% of the time. The vocational expert opined, however, that Speaks could
not perform any job existing in the economy if she were off task for even as
much as 10% of the time. (R. 74) The record contains evidence that Speaks’s
mental impairments are serious and real. (R. 957-6 1, 975-78) (discussing
reports of manic episodes, suicide attempts, suicidal ideations, self-mutilation,
and auditory and visual hallucinations). As the AU found in step three, such
impairments imposed mild to (at least) moderate limitations on Speaks’s ability
to perform day-to-day activities, function socially, and concentrate. (1?. 13-14,
17-19) Thus it is quite plausible that Speaks’s mental impairments, standing
The AU concluded that, if Speaks stopped drinking, her marked limitation in
concentration would improve to a moderate one. (R. 18-19) Again, however, no reason
is given as to why only Speaks’ substance abuse disorder affects her ability to
concentrate, and why her mental impairments do not.
alone, could cause her to be off-task as much as 10% of the time. At the very
least, these circumstances are sufficient to require a reasoned, evidence-based
explanation for the conclusion that the entire 20% of off-task time is
attributable to alcoholism alone.
Where, as here, the AW’s decision lacks adequate reasoning or
support for its conclusions, or if it contains illogical or contradictory findings,
remand is appropriate. See Burnett v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112, 119—
20 (3d Cir. 2000); Podedwomy a Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).
For these reasons, the matter will be REMANDED to the AW for
further proceedings. The record may be developed further, if appropriate. If
disability would be present even absent the substance abuse, the AlA may so
find. If, on the other hand, substantial evidence indicates that Speaks’s
substance abuse rises to the level of a contributing material factor to Speaks’
disability, the AlA shall provide reasons for that finding sufficient for this
Court to exercise its function of review.
Dated: June 30, 2017
United States District Ju e
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?