The Social Security Act provides that a claimant will not be found disabled if alcoholism or drug addiction is a contributing factor material to the determination that the individual is disabled. If the administrative law judge at your Social Security disability hearing finds that alcoholism is a medically determinable impairment and that you are disabled considering all of your medically determinable impairments, then the administrative law judge must then determine whether you would continue to be disabled if you stopped using alcohol.
Alcoholism is not material to the determination that you’re disabled if you would continue to meet the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) definition of disability if you were not using alcohol. If alcoholism is not material, you will be found disabled.
When will the SSA make a determination on the materiality of alcoholism?
The SSA will make an alcoholism materiality determination only if: 1) it has medical evidence from an acceptable medical source (treating physician or nurse practitioner) establishing that you have alcoholism or a substance use disorder and 2) it finds that you are disabled considering all your medical impairments, including alcoholism.
How does the SSA determinate the materiality of alcoholism?
You have the burden of proving that you’re disabled under the Social Security Act. The SSA’s burden of proof is limited to producing evidence that there is work you can do that exists in the national economy based on your age, education, transferable job skills, and medical impairments. This means that you continue to have the burden of proving disability throughout the alcoholism materiality analysis. For this reason, you should be proactive in proving sobriety during your Social Security disability claim.
At step 1 of the alcoholism materiality determination the SSA will look to see if the medical evidence establishes an alcohol problem. It will review your medical records and reports for mentions of substance use and alcohol abuse. If there is no evidence of alcoholism, then it cannot be material.
At step 2 of the determination, the SSA will decide whether you’re disabled considering all of your medical impairments, including physical problems, mental problems, and alcoholism.
At step 3, the SSA will determine whether alcohol abuse is your only medical impairment. If so, then it will deny your claim.
At step 4, the SSA will determine whether your other medical impairments are disabling by themselves when you’re using alcohol.
At step 5 the SSA will look at whether your alcohol use causes or affects your other medically determinable impairments.
And at step 6 the SSA will look at whether your other impairments would improve to the point of non-disability if you stopped using alcohol. If your other impairments would not improve then the SSA will allow your claim.
Alcohol use is usually an issue only if your disability claim is based on mental health impairments. If you’re alleging disability based on physical impairments like back pain or a traumatic brain injury, then alcoholism is unlikely to be found material.
Proving sobriety in your SSD claim
As we said above, you must be proactive in showing that alcoholism is not material. This means establishing proof of sobriety if you have: 1) been convicted of DUI or DWUI in the past 10 years; 2) lost a job because of alcohol use; 3) lost custody of a child because of alcohol use; or, 4) been diagnosed with alcohol abuse or substance use disorder.
Documentation is helpful in proving periods of sobriety. If you are on probation or parole currently, or have been on probation or parole in the past five years, tell your disability attorney. If routine drug testing was a condition of your parole, then your attorney can obtain test results to show that you were sober during the period in question.
In our experience you may have to contact your parole or probation officer frequently. We can use written statements from your parole officer, along with printouts of blood, urine, or hair test results, to prove that substance use was not a problem during the period in question.
If your probation officer will not turn over the test results, then your attorney can ask the administrative law judge to issue a subpoena for them.
Similarly, your attorney can use your testimony regarding attendance at Alcoholics’ Anonymous (AA) meetings to prove sobriety. If your sponsor feels comfortable testifying at hearing or writing a statement that can be submitted into evidence, then you’ll have a better chance of proving that alcoholism is not material to your disability.