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Wheeler v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

December 15, 2017

JAY MATTHEU WHEELER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Marsha J. Pechman United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Jay Mattheu Wheeler seeks review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. He contends the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in assessing the medical evidence, whether his impairments met or equaled a listing at step three, and the reliability of his subjective testimony and lay witness testimony. Dkt. 11. Mr. Wheeler alleges that these errors led to errors in the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment and the ALJ's finding that he could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Dkt. 11 at 18-19. As discussed below, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS this case for further administrative proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         Mr. Wheeler is currently 47 years old, has a 10th-grade education, and previously worked as garbage truck driver, roofer, and lumber yard foreman. Tr. 80, 89, 460. In April 2011, he applied for benefits, alleging disability as of September 15, 2010. Tr. 57, 151-52, 426-38. His applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 236-39, 243-56. The ALJ conducted hearings on June 12, 2012, and October 30, 2012 (Tr. 38-104), and subsequently found Mr. Wheeler not disabled. Tr. 214-25. The Appeals Council granted Mr. Wheeler's request for review, and remanded the matter back to the ALJ for further proceedings. Tr. 232-34.

         The ALJ held another hearing on February 5, 2015 (Tr. 105-50), and subsequently found Mr. Wheeler not disabled. Tr. 14-27. As the Appeals Council denied Mr. Wheeler's request for review, the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision. Tr. 1-6.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         In a case involving evidence of drug addiction and alcoholism (“DAA”), an ALJ may need to consider the impact of the claimant's DAA on his or her impairments. If the claimant would be considered disabled if the DAA is factored in, the ALJ should go on to consider whether the claimant would still be disabled if the DAA is factored out. See Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 13-2p, 2013 WL 621536, at *4-5 (Feb. 20, 2013). If the claimant would not be considered disabled if his or her DAA were factored out, then the DAA is “material” to the disability and the claimant is not entitled to disability benefits. SSR 13-2p, 2013 WL 621536, at *4.

         In this case, the ALJ applied the five-step disability evaluation process[1] to find Mr. Wheeler disabled initially at step three, and then restarted the evaluation process to consider the materiality of Mr. Wheeler's DAA. The ALJ found:

Step one: Mr. Wheeler did not engage in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date.
Step two: Mr. Wheeler's seizures, cognitive disorder, learning disorder, borderline intellectual functioning, and alcohol abuse are severe impairments.
Step three: Factoring in Mr. Wheeler's alcohol abuse, his seizure disorder meets the requirements of Listing 11.01.[2] Therefore, if Mr. Wheeler's DAA is included, he is disabled.
DAA step two: If Mr. Wheeler stopped the substance use, he would still continue to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.
DAA step three: If Mr. Wheeler stopped the substance use, none of his impairments meet the requirements of a listed impairment.
RFC: If Mr. Wheeler stopped the substance use, he could perform light work, with additional limitations. He can lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. He can stand/walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday, and sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday. He must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as dangerous moving machinery and heights. He can perform simple, repetitive tasks. He can maintain attention and concentration in two-hour increments, with usual and customary breaks. He can interact occasionally with supervisors. He can work superficially and occasionally with the general public. He can maintain appropriate standards of cleanliness and neatness as would be required for work involving only superficial and occasional interaction ...

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