Murray v. Colvin
DECISION AND ORDER granting 8 Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings; denying 12 Commissioner's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. This matter is reversed and remanded solely for the calculation and payment of benefits. The Clerk of the Court is directed to close this case. Signed by Hon. Michael A. Telesca on 4/6/17. (JMC)-CLERK TO FOLLOW UP-
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
TRAVIS EDWARD MURRAY,
No. 1:16-CV-00181 (MAT)
DECISION AND ORDER
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,
Represented by counsel, Travis Edward Murray (“plaintiff”)
brings this action pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act
Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying his
application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). The Court has
jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Presently before the Court are the parties’ cross-motions for
judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal
plaintiff’s motion is granted and the matter is reversed and
remanded solely for the calculation and payment of benefits.
The record reveals that in October 2012, plaintiff (d/o/b
February 22, 1979) applied for SSI, alleging disability as of
requested a hearing, which was held via videoconference before
administrative law judge Robert T. Harvey (“the ALJ”) on July 24,
2014. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on October 14, 2014.
The Appeals Council denied review of that decision and this timely
III. The ALJ’s Decision
§ 416.920, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since October 9, 2012, the application
date. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following
severe impairments: cannabis abuse and dependence, depression, and
anxiety. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have
an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically
concluded that plaintiff had mild restrictions in activities of
daily living (“ADLs”) and maintaining concentration, persistence,
or pace, and moderate difficulties in social functioning. The ALJ
found that plaintiff had experienced three prior episodes of
decompensation, without discussing whether these episodes were of
Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that,
considering all of plaintiff’s impairments including substance
abuse, plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
nonexertional limitations: “occasional limitations in the ability
frequent limitations in the ability to maintain regular attendance;
occasional limitations in the ability to complete a normal workday
and workweek; occasional limitations in the ability to interact
appropriately with the public; and frequent limitations in dealing
with stress.” T. 19. The ALJ found that “consider[ing] the entire
record, including the medical evidence, the claimant’s reported
[ADLs], his testimony and the [medical] opinion evidence, . . .
disabling symptoms and functional limitations as noted above.”
At step five, the ALJ determined that, considering plaintiff’s
age, education, work experience, and RFC, no jobs existed in
significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could
perform. However, pursuant to the drug or alcohol abuse (“DAA”)
standards, see 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(J); 20 C.F.R. § 416.935, the
ALJ went on to consider the effect of plaintiff’s alcohol and drug
abuse on the finding of disability, and concluded that if plaintiff
stopped substance abuse, the remaining impairments would be severe,
but plaintiff would have the RFC to perform the broad range of work
with only the following nonexertional limitations: “occasional
limitations in the ability to understand[,] remember and carry out
detailed instructions; occasional limitations in the ability to
interact appropriately with the public; and occasional limitations
in dealing with stress.” T. 24. Based on this RFC, the ALJ went on
considering his age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs
existed in the national economy which he could perform. Thus, the
ALJ found that plaintiff’s substance abuse disorder was a material
contributing factor to the disability determination. Accordingly,
the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled.
determination that a claimant is not disabled only if the factual
findings are not supported by “substantial evidence” or if the
decision is based on legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also
Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 105-06 (2d Cir. 2003).
“Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Shaw v.
Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000).
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erroneously determined that
contributing to his disability. Specifically, plaintiff contends
that the ALJ failed to explain what (if any) evidence in the record
supported his conclusion that, in the absence of DAA, plaintiff’s
limitations stemming from mental impairments would improve to the
point that plaintiff was not disabled. For the reasons discussed
below, the Court finds that the ALJ’s decision was the product of
legal error and was unsupported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff points to the July 17, 2014 opinion of his treating
psychiatrist, Dr. Monir Chaudhry. In that opinion, Dr. Chaudhry
noted that he treated plaintiff on a biweekly basis and plaintiff
was compliant with outpatient care, which he would need “longterm.”
depressive disorder, noting symptoms of anxiety and depression, and
opined that he was unable to meet competitive standards in the
areas of maintaining regular attendance and being punctual within
customary, usually strict tolerances; completing a normal workday
symptoms; and dealing with normal work stress. Dr. Chaudhry also
opined that plaintiff was seriously limited in sustaining an
coordination with or proximity to others without being unduly
distracted; and accepting instructions and responding appropriately
to criticism from supervisors.
According to Dr. Chaudhry, plaintiff had an “inability to
manage work stress which results in missed work time and resistance
to maintaining a routine work schedule,” and he “frequently [had]
problems with co-workers [and] supervisors resulting in significant
distress.” T. 340. Dr. Chaudhry acknowledged that substance abuse
“self-medicate[d] for anxiety with marijuana.” T. 342. Dr. Chaudhry
limitations would improve if he ceased use of marijuana. The ALJ
[plaintiff’s] substance abuse contribute[d] to [his] anxiety and to
his assessed functional limitations.” T. 21, 28.1
The ALJ gave little weight to the only other functional assessment in the
record, which came from consulting state agency examining psychologist Yu-Ying
Lin, finding that this opinion was internally inconsistent. The Court notes that
neither party has taken issue with the weight given to Dr. Lin’s opinion.
Under the Act, a claimant “shall not be considered to be
disabled . . . if [DAA] would . . . be a contributing factor
material to the Commissioner’s determination that the individual is
§ 416.935. The burden of proof is on plaintiff to establish that
DAA is immaterial to the disability determination. See Cage v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 692 F.3d 118, 123 (2d Cir. 2012); SSR 13–2p.
As plaintiff points out, SSR 13-2p provides clear guidelines
to ALJs regarding the DAA analysis. See SSR
13-2p, Titles II &
XVI: Evaluating Cases Involving Drug Addiction & Alcoholism (DAA),
2013 WL 621536 (S.S.A. Feb. 20, 2013). Pursuant to that ruling,
ALJs are to proceed through a six-step analysis in determining
materiality of DAA. In this case, the ALJ proceeded through the
first five steps of the DAA analysis and found that plaintiff’s
limitations, including DAA, were disabling. In so doing, the ALJ
gave significant weight to Dr. Chaudhry’s treating opinion as noted
above. The last question pursuant to SSR 13-2p is whether “the
other impairment(s) [in this case, depression and anxiety] improve
to the point of nondisability in the absence of DAA[.].” Id. at *5.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not support his affirmative
answer to this question with substantial evidence. The Court
Plaintiff’s depression and anxiety are “co-occurring mental
disorders” for purposes of the DAA analysis. SSR 13-2p instructs:
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.
sequential evaluation process,” id. at *4, in the case of cooccurring mental disorders, the Commissioner “will find that DAA is
not material . . . to the determination of disability and allow the
claim if the record is fully developed and the evidence does not
establish that the claimant’s co-occurring mental disorder(s) would
improve to the point of nondisability in the absence of DAA.”2 Id.
at *9 (emphasis added).
restrictive and requires that the record conclusively establish
that, in the absence of DAA, plaintiff’s condition would improve to
the point of nondisability. The Court agrees with plaintiff that
the ALJ failed to properly apply the DAA analysis and that his
conclusion that plaintiff would not be disabled in the absence of
DAA is unsupported by substantial evidence. Initially, the Court
finds that this record is fully developed and notes that neither
party argues otherwise. The ALJ found that, considering this
evidence, plaintiff’s limitations would be disabling when all of
The full text of this sentence reads, “We will find that DAA is not
material to material to the determination of disability and allow the claim if
the record is fully developed and the evidence does not establish that the
claimant's co-occurring mental disorder(s) would improve to the point of
nondisability in the absence of DAA.” Id. at *9 (emphasis added). The emphasized
text appears to be a typographical error which has yet to be corrected by the
his impairments, including DAA, were considered. The Commissioner
does not dispute this preliminary finding. The Court finds that the
finding was supported by substantial evidence in the record,
including Dr. Chaudhry’s opinion as to plaintiff’s functional
limitations. Therefore, unless substantial evidence in the record
showed that absent DAA plaintiff would not be disabled, the ALJ was
required to enter a finding of disability pursuant to SSR 13-2p.
See id. at *9.
In proceeding to the question of whether plaintiff would be
disabled by his co-occurring mental disorders in the absence of
contributed to plaintiff’s limitations. As SSR 13-2p makes clear,
the question is not whether DAA is a contributing factor to
disability, but rather whether evidence in the record establishes
that, but for the DAA, plaintiff’s limitations would render him not
disabled. After giving significant weight to Dr. Chaudhry’s opinion
that plaintiff’s substance abuse contributed to plaintiff’s mental
disorders, the ALJ went on to conclude that, apparently based on
information contained in plaintiff’s psychiatric records, plaintiff
would not be disabled if he stopped using marijuana. However, a
careful review of the record reveals no evidence indicating that,
in the absence of DAA, plaintiff’s “co-occurring mental disorder(s)
would improve to the point of nondisability in the absence of DAA.”
SSR 13-2p, 2013 WL 621536, at *9 (emphasis added). For example, the
record reveals no “period of abstinence . . . long enough to allow
the acute effects of [DAA] to abate.” Id. at *12; see also id. at
*4 (noting that “[t]here does not have to be evidence from a period
of abstinence for the claimant to meet his or her burden of proving
Moreover, Dr. Chaudhry’s opinion that it was “unknown” to what
extent plaintiff’s limitations would be affected by abstinence, in
combination with the lack of evidence in the record to that effect,
indicates that substantial evidence in the record did not support
the ALJ’s conclusion that plaintiff was not disabled. See id. at *9
(“[W]e 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.”) (emphasis added).
Considering the substantial evidence of record, the ALJ’s
finding that plaintiff’s limitations were disabling when considered
together, and the lack of evidence establishing that plaintiff
would not be disabled but for DAA, this Court has “no reason to
doubt that plaintiff is disabled under the Act.” Franz v. Colvin,
91 F. Supp. 3d 1200, 1218 (D. Or. 2015). Accordingly, this case is
remanded solely for the calculation and payment of benefits. See
id.; see also Schanzenbaker v. Colvin, 2014 WL 943351, at *10 (E.D.
Wash. Mar. 11, 2014) (reversing for calculation of benefits where
ALJ’s finding that DAA was material to disability was the result of
improper legal analysis and unsupported by substantial evidence).
For the foregoing reasons, the Commissioner’s cross-motion for
judgment on the pleadings (Doc. 12) is denied and plaintiff’s
motion (Doc. 8) is granted. This matter is reversed and remanded
solely for the calculation and payment of benefits. The Clerk of
the Court is directed to close this case.
ALL OF THE ABOVE IS SO ORDERED.
S/Michael A. Telesca
HON. MICHAEL A. TELESCA
United States District Judge
April 6, 2017
Rochester, New York.
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