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Sedlak v. Commissioner of Social Security

April 21, 2008

RE: SEDLAK
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William J. Martini Judge

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR . FEDERAL BLD G. & U. S. COURT HOUSE

LETTER OPINION

Dear Counsel:

Plaintiff Kenneth Sedlak brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of the Social Security Act ("Act"), as amended, seeking review of the final determination by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his request for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. For the reasons articulated below, the Court will AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born in 1949. (R. at 79.)*fn1 Plaintiff formerly worked as a roofer as well as a cloth cutter and spreader for several years. (R. at 18.) Plaintiff claims that he is disabled because he has suffered from a seizure disorder since approximately 1999. (R. at 15, 65, 422.) On January 27, 2003, Plaintiff applied for SSI under Title XVI of the Act.

(R. at 71.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. at 15.) On January 6, 2005, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge John M. Farley ("ALJ"). (Id.)

On September 17, 2005, the ALJ entered a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled to SSI under the Act. (R. at 15-21.) Applying the familiar five-step disability analysis, the ALJ first found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. (R. at 19.) Then, at step two, the ALJ concluded that the evidence established that Plaintiff suffered from two severe impairments: a seizure disorder and alcohol abuse. (Id.) The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff's osteopenia, left ventricular hypertrophy, and uncontrolled hypertension were not severe. (R. at 20.) Next, at step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met Listing 12.09,*fn2 which addresses substance addiction disorders. See 20 C.F.R. Part. 404, Subpart P., Appendix 1. Listing 12.09 "is structured as a reference listing; . . . it . . . only serve[s] to indicate which of the other listed mental or physical impairments must be used to evaluate the behavioral or physical changes resulting from regular use of addictive substances." Id. § 12.00(A). The required level of severity for a substance addiction disorder is met when, as a result of substance abuse, the requirements in one or more of Listings 12.02, 12.04, 12.06, 12.08, 5.05, 5.04, 5.08, 11.02, 11.03, or 11.14 are satisfied. Id. § 12.09. Accordingly, the ALJ looked to Listing 11.02,*fn3 Epilepsy - convulsive epilepsy, and determined that Plaintiff met the clinical criteria and therefore satisfied the requirements for Listing 12.09. However, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C) and 20 C.F.R. § 416.935(b), in the event that alcohol is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, the ALJ must assess whether the individual would still be disabled if he abstained from alcohol. In the case at hand, the ALJ determined that in the absence of alcohol, Plaintiff would have no remaining severe limitations, and, thus, Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act.

Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, which was denied on June 1, 2006. (R. at 6.) Accordingly, the ALJ's decision became final. Plaintiff now appeals this decision.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court exercises plenary review over the Commissioner's legal conclusions and is bound by the Commissioner's factual findings if they are supported by substantial evidence. See Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000). Substantial evidence "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (citation omitted); see also Woody v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 859 F.2d 1156, 1159 (3d Cir. 1988) (stating that substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.") Thus, this Court's inquiry is whether the record, read in its entirety, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached by the Commissioner. "Overall, the substantial evidence standard is a deferential standard of review." Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004).

This Court must affirm the decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. See Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir.1981). It does not matter whether this Court, if acting de novo, would have reached a different conclusion. See Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-91 (3d Cir. 1986).

III. ANALYSIS

Plaintiff does not challenge the ALJ's step one and step two determinations that he was both unemployed during the relevant period and suffered from two severe impairments: a seizure disorder and alcohol abuse. (Pl.'s Br. 20.) Plaintiff's first argument is that the ALJ failed to appropriately consider the fact that Plaintiff stopped drinking in 2004. (Pl.'s Br. 25.) Second, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's determination that, absent alcohol abuse he would not have any remaining severe limitations, was not supported by substantial evidence. (Pl.'s Br. 22.) Lastly, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ incorrectly determined that his osteopenia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and ...


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