The Social Security Administration (SSA) provides disability benefits to persons who are unable to work due to disability. But sometimes the question of whether a particular claimant is disabled isn't so easy to answer. In Gordon v. Commissioner of Social Security, the District Court for the District of New York explains how the SSA weighs a person's history of substance abuse in determining whether he or she is eligible for benefits.
Plaintiff Thomas Gordon filed a claim for Social Security disability benefits, asserting that he's unable to work due to a schizoaffective disorder. The SSA denied his claim. Following an administrative hearing before an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in Binghamton, NY, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled for Social Security benefits purposes. Specifically, according to the Court "[t]he ALJ concluded that if [Plaintiff] stopped substance use, he would be able to perform past relevant work as an HVAC laborer and therefore was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act."
On appeal, the District Court upheld the ALJ's decision, finding that it was supported by substantial evidence. Generally, a person who is unable to work for one year or more due to a physical or mental impairment is eligible for Social Security disability benefits. In 1996, however, the Social Security Act was amended to provide that "an individual shall not be considered to be disabled...if alcoholism or drug addiction would...be a contributing factor material to the Commissioner's determination that the individual is disabled." Citing the Eastern District of New York's ruling in Hernandez v. Astrue, the Court explained that "[i]n determining whether alcohol or substance abuse is material to the determination of disability, the key factor is whether the Commissioner would still find the claimant disabled if he stopped using the alcohol or substance."
In this case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff would continue to suffer from mild schizoaffective disorder if he stopped substance abuse and that this impairment could be treated and controlled with medication. Furthermore, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff would retain the RFC to perform a full range of jobs available in the national economy, including his previous job as an HVAC technician. This conclusion, according to the Court, was supported by various medical records indicating that Plaintiff's substance abuse contributed to his disability, including one doctor's finding that Plaintiff's "psychosis is substance induced." Despite the fact that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had previously determined that Plaintiff is fully disabled as a result of his mental impairment, the Court noted that the VA's disability criteria differs from that employed by the SSA. As a result, the Court affirmed the ALJ's decision.
As Social Security disability attorneys with decades of experience representing clients in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, we understand that substance abuse can be a result, rather than the cause, of disabling impairments. By gathering the necessary statements and supporting documentation from the treating sources and presenting it to the SSA and its judges in a compelling manner, an experienced Social Security lawyer can assist a client in showing that the alcohol or substance abuse is not a material cause of the disability and that any impairment in the ability to work is not due to the substance abuse.
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