Justin S. Raines
How does one deal with drug addiction or alcoholism in a disability case?
Updated: Jun 4, 2021
In both Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits cases, drug addiction or alcoholism (DAA) is rarely a bar against receiving disability benefits. This is because a DAA problem must be “material” to the finding of disability before a claimant will be denied disability benefits.
For a DAA problem to be material to a disability case, there must be evidence that a disability claimant would be able to return to work if the DAA were not in the case.
Social Security Ruling (SSR) 13-2p makes it clear that for DAA to be material in any case it must be a medically determinable impairment that is diagnosed by an acceptable medical source. Mere drug or alcohol use is not enough unless it rises to the level of a severe impairment.
Moreover, the disability claimant must be found disabled under the five-step sequential analysis before the DAA issue may even enter the picture. Because the Social Security Administration (SSA) must find a claimant disabled under the five-step sequential analysis before considering the DAA issue, a denial based upon DAA is sometimes called a “step six” denial.
Finally, SSR 13-2p acknowledges that it may not be possible to differentiate between a claimant’s physical and mental impairments and DAA issues.
Often, DAA issues do not result in a direct denial of benefits, but they can sometimes hurt how believable a claimant is—an issue called credibility. Strictly speaking, Social Security policy forbids the SSA from weighing the overall credibility of a claimant, but credibility issues continue to permeate the process, especially at hearings before an administrative law judges (ALJs).
For this reason, the best way to address DAA issues at a disability hearing is to deal with them directly—to acknowledge them and to explain why they are not material to the finding of disability.
Usually, a claimant’s DAA issues are documented somewhere in the medical and other evidence that a disability case generates; trying to deny DAA issues or hide them only makes them stand out more.
By taking a direct approach, a claimant can best explain the problems that led to the DAA issues and show that they are not material to the case.
If a person has a severe illness or injury that prevents them from working, they should contact an experienced disability lawyer for help and advice about their case.