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Tenaglia v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 28, 2017

KRYSTLE M. TENAGLIA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          George A. O'Toole, Jr. United States District Judge.

         The plaintiff, Krystle M. Tenaglia, appeals the denial of her application for Social Security Disability Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). Pending before this Court are Tenaglia's Motion to Reverse or Remand the Decision of the Commissioner (dkt. no. 13) and the Commissioner's Motion to Affirm the Commissioner's Decision (dkt. no. 17). After consideration of the administrative record and the parties' memoranda, this Court now affirms the Commissioner's decision because it is supported by substantial evidence in the record and no error of law was committed.

         I. Procedural History

         Tenaglia filed applications for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on April 4, 2013, alleging disability beginning on August 29, 2012. (Administrative Tr. 105 [hereinafter R.]; see id. at 192-204.)[2] The plaintiff's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Id. at 56-75, 78-101.) Tenaglia then testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on May 7, 2015. (Id. at 14-53.) On July 24, 2015, the ALJ issued his decision finding that Tenaglia was not disabled, (id. at 105-21), and the Appeals Council subsequently denied Tenaglia's request for review of the ALJ's decision, (id. at 1-5). The denial rendered the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, making the case ripe for review by this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         II. Discussion

         Review of the Commissioner's decision is limited “to determining whether the ALJ used the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence.” Ward v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000). A court will uphold an ALJ's decision when it is supported by substantial evidence, which exists where “a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support [the ALJ's] conclusion, ” Ortiz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted), even if there is also evidence that could support an alternate conclusion, Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1987) (citing Lizotte v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 654 F.2d 127, 128 (1st Cir. 1981)). The court is required to do this because the responsibility for weighing conflicting evidence and resolving issues of credibility belongs to the Commissioner and her designee, the ALJ. Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 10 (1st Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).

         On appeal, Tenaglia argues that the ALJ erred by finding that her substance abuse was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability and that she would not be disabled in the absence of the substance abuse. She also challenges the ALJ's determination of her residual functional capacity (“RFC”).

         The full and extensive administrative record is filed on the docket in this case, as is the written decision of the ALJ. Thus, there is no reason to restate here the details of Tenaglia's medical history or the application process except as necessary to discuss the specific objections made to the Commissioner's decision.

         A. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that the plaintiff's alcoholism was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability

         In cases where a claimant suffers from alcoholism or drug addiction, it must be determined whether the substance abuse is a material contributing factor to the disability. If it is, the claimant cannot be deemed disabled for DIB or SSI purposes. First, the ALJ must proceed through the sequential five-step process described in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)[3] to decide whether the claimant is disabled after considering all of her medical impairments, including alcoholism or drug addiction. If the ALJ determines that the claimant is disabled after this initial review, the ALJ repeats the five-step analysis to “determine whether the claimant would continue to be disabled if he or she stopped using drugs or alcohol.” SSR 13-2p, 2013 WL 621536, at *2 (February 20, 2013). The purpose of this additional analysis is to resolve whether the claimant's drug addiction or alcoholism is a “contributing factor material to the determination of disability.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1535. This is significant because “[a]n individual shall not be considered to be disabled . . . if alcoholism or drug addiction would . . . be a contributing factor to the Commissioner's determination that the individual is disabled.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C).

         In the ALJ's initial review, he found that the plaintiff was disabled because her mental impairments, including her alcoholism, met listing sections 12.04, 12.06, and 12.09 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 108.) Specifically, the ALJ determined that Tenaglia had marked restrictions both in activities of daily living and in social functioning when she was abusing alcohol. (Id. at 108-09). When a claimant meets at least two “paragraph B” criteria with marked restrictions or difficulties she is considered disabled without consideration of age, education, or work experience. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). However, the ALJ also concluded that if the plaintiff stopped her alcohol abuse, she would not have an impairment under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 because her limitations would not satisfy any “paragraph B” criteria. (R. at 109-11.)

         He further concluded that even if she stopped abusing alcohol, she could not perform her past work because of her anxiety and other mental health symptoms, (id. at 114-15), but that there were other jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform based on her age, education, work experience, and RFC, (id. at 115). In assessing what Tenaglia's RFC would be in the absence of substance abuse, the ALJ determined that her mental impairments were not as limiting as alleged because during periods of sobriety Tenaglia was “full[y] oriented and alert, with normal mood and affect, and normal concentration.” (Id. at 113.) The ALJ supported this conclusion by citing specific treatment notes in the record that address Tenaglia's improvements while she is sober. (Id.) The ALJ concluded that the plaintiff's alcoholism “is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability because the claimant would not be disabled if she stopped the substance use.” (Id. at 115 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 404.1535).)

         Tenaglia argues that the ALJ's conclusion on this issue was faulty because she continued to experience “psychiatric episodes” despite having been sober during the relevant time period except for “three one-day relapses since July, 2013, a 2 year period before the decision.” (Mem. in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. to Reverse or Remand the Decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, 2 (dkt. no. 14).) Her argument is unpersuasive. The record contains a number of treatment notes in which Tenaglia reports relapses and alcohol use exceeding the “three one-day relapses since July 2013” that the plaintiff claims in her brief. (See, e.g., R. at 612, 636, 640, 646/655, 656, 659, 672/673, 691.)

         There is also substantial evidence in the record that supports the ALJ's conclusion that during periods of sobriety Tenaglia reported decreased feelings of depression and anxiety. (Id. at 59, 63, 344, 566, 568, 570, 636, 640, 695.) This evidence supports the ALJ's determination that “[w]hen [Tenaglia] presents for routine treatment when not abusing substances, she is consistently reported to be fully oriented and alert, with normal mood and affect, and normal concentration.” (Id. at 113.) In his ...


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