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Wooten v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Jasper Division

September 25, 2018

TONY WOOTEN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Tony Wooten brings this action pursuant to Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the Administrative Law Judge's denial of disability insurance benefits, which has become the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). For the reasons explained below, in particular because the ALJ relied in part on the erroneous finding of Dr. Nathan Strahl, the court finds that the ALJ's conclusion that alcohol abuse is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability is not supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the court reverses and remands for further consideration.

         I. Procedural History

         Wooten served for seventeen years in the Army National Guard. R. 100. During that time, he served as a platoon leader for thirteen months in Iraq and participated in numerous missions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. R. 101-03, 114-15, 291. After leaving the armed services, Wooten worked as a truck driver and corrections officer before he stopped working in July 2013 at age 47 due to his alleged disability. R. 36, 321, 329. Wooten filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) on September 15, 2013, alleging that he suffered from a disability, beginning July 2, 2013 due to post traumatic stress disorder and pain in his back, neck, and knee. R. 11, 266, 319. After the SSA denied his application, Wooten requested a hearing before an ALJ. R. 142, 147, 151. The ALJ ultimately held three hearings-the initial hearing plus two supplemental hearings so that the ALJ would have the benefit of the testimony of a medical expert, a board-certified psychiatrist, who reviewed Wooten's records. R. 11, 31, 47, 71, 90.

         The ALJ subsequently entered a decision finding that Wooten was not disabled. R. 8. The SSA Appeals Council denied Wooten's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1. Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Wooten timely filed this petition for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383(c)(3) and 405(g). Doc. 1.

         II. Standard of Review

         The only issues before this court are whether the record contains substantial evidence to sustain the ALJ's decision, see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982), and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards, see Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Title 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) mandate that the Commissioner's “factual findings are conclusive if supported by ‘substantial evidence.'” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). The district court may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner; instead, it must review the final decision as a whole and determine if the decision is “‘reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.'” Id. (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).

         Substantial evidence falls somewhere between a scintilla and a preponderance of evidence; “‘[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529 (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239). If supported by substantial evidence, the court must affirm the Commissioner's factual findings even if the preponderance of the evidence is against those findings. See Id. While judicial review of the ALJ's findings is limited in scope, it “does not yield automatic affirmance.” Lamb, 847 F.2d at 701.

         In contrast to the deferential review accorded the Commissioner's factual findings, “conclusions of law, including applicable review standards, are not presumed valid” and are subject to de novo review. Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529. The Commissioner's failure to “apply the correct legal standards or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient basis for a determination that proper legal principles have been followed” requires reversal. Id.

         III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrated by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).

         Determination of disability under the Act requires a five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). Specifically, the ALJ must determine in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently unemployed;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the impairment meets or equals one listed by the ...

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