United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
EDMUND C. BITTNER, JR., Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,  Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
JOI ELIZABETH PEAKE, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Edmund Bittner ("Plaintiff") brought this action pursuant to Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income under Title II of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed his application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits on October 23, 2006 alleging disability as of that date. (Tr. at 22, 103, 98, 187-89.) His application was denied initially (Tr. at 98) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 99). Thereafter, he requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 132-34.) On January 31, 2008, Plaintiff, along with his attorney, an impartial vocational expert, and a lay minister, attended his administrative hearing. (Tr. at 103.) By written decision on May 20, 2008, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claims. (Tr. at 103-113.) However, the Appeals Council subsequently granted review and remanded the case for further explanation and evaluation of whether substance abuse is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, specifically including assessment of Plaintiff's functional capacities during any relevant period of abstinence. (Tr. at 115-116.) The case came before the ALJ for rehearing on December 16, 2010, and the hearing was attended by Plaintiff, his attorney, and an impartial vocational expert. (Tr. at 22.) The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff's alcohol abuse was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, and that he would not be disabled absent substance use. (Tr. at 36.)
In rendering his disability determination, the ALJ made the following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:
1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 23, 2006, the application date (20 CFR 416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq .).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: alcohol dependence, depression, alcohol-related seizures, history of cerebrovascular accident, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, and degenerative joint disease of the right knee (20 CFR 416.920(c)).
3. The claimant's impairments, including the substance use disorder, meet sections 12.04 and 12.09 of 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d)).
4. If the claimant stopped the substance use, the remaining limitations would cause more than a minimal impact on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities; therefore, the claimant would continue to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.
5. If the claimant stopped the substance use, the claimant would not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the impairments listed in 20 CFR ...