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Are Drug Addicts and Alcoholics Entitled to Social Security Disability Benefits?

I was recently asked whether drug addicts and alcoholics are entitled to Social Security Disability benefits.  Such a seemingly simple question deserves a good lawyerly answer – and – so not to disappoint, my answer is “it depends.”  Let me explain.

Before 1996, people could actually claim Social Security Disability benefits based upon their addiction to drugs or alcohol.  In other words, the law allowed a person to basically say that his or her addiction itself was a disability and he or she could therefore claim benefits based on that disability.  Then, in 1996, everything changed.  Newt Gingrich, who was Speaker of the House at the time, spearheaded legislation that came to be known as “The Contract with America.”  The legislation was passed and the rest is history.  The new legislation included regulations that basically aimed to prevent drug addicts and alcoholics from using their addiction as basis for getting disability money.  In other words, today, alcoholism and drug addiction may not be considered as disabling impairments.  You can imagine that such a simple concept enjoyed widespread support.  However, nothing Congress ever does is quite as simple as it seems, and this proved no exception.  Basically, the way the law stands today, a person cannot receive such benefits if his or her addiction to drugs or alcohol is a “contributing factor material to the determination of disability.” 42 U.S.C.A. 423(d)(2)(C)(2).  Gotta love lawyers!  The best way to think about what that means is to ask whether the person would still be disabled even if he or she discontinued using alcohol or drugs.  If the answer is yes, that person may still be entitled.

For example, consider the person who acquires AIDS through intravenous drug use.  Even if that person  stopped using drugs, the AIDS would not go away, and therefore the person may still be found disabled.  It does not matter that the drug use caused the AIDS.  Consider the person who has abused alcohol so much that his liver is now damaged beyond repair.  If his liver condition would remain regardless of his alcohol abuse, he may still qualify for benefits.  It does not matter that alcohol abuse caused his liver problems.  Additionally, many people who are addicted to such substances also have severe underlying mental illnesses for which they are trying to compensate.  In the field of psychiatry, it’s known as “self-medication.”  In such cases, a person may quit all drug and alcohol abuse yet still suffer from a deep dark depression.  That depression may serve as the basis of a disability claim.  The legal analysis of these issues can be quite slippery in the real world.

In my own practice, I have seen many Judges misapply this standard.  Most recently, a man who has had a lifelong struggle with alcohol came to my office to ask if I could represent him in an appeal of a case that was recently denied by a Judge.  After reading the Judge’s Opinion and finding a number of instances where the Judge misapplied this standard, I agreed to take his case.  It is currently pending on appeal.

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