United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Jasper Division
K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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.
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.
Standard of Review
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
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.
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.
Statutory and Regulatory Framework
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).
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