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Little v. Berryhill

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

March 25, 2019

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), plaintiff Brandi Melissa Little seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision by the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied Ms. Little's claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. After careful review, the Court remands the Commissioner's decision.


         Ms. Little applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 5-3, p. 12; Doc. 5-4, p. 2). Ms. Little alleges that her disability began December 1, 2009. (Doc. 5-3, p. 12; Doc. 5-4, p. 2). The Commissioner initially denied Ms. Little's claim. (Doc. 5-3, p. 12; Doc. 5-4, p. 2). Ms. Little requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 5-3, pp. 3, 12). The hearing took place on January 7, 2013. (Doc. 5-3, pp. 12, 31). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on March 6, 2013. (Doc. 5-3, p. 26). The Appeals Council declined Ms. Little's request for review (Doc. 5-3, pp. 9-11), making the Commissioner's decision final for appellate review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Ms. Little filed an action for judicial review. Little v. Colvin, No. 1:13-CV-1475-SLB, 2015 WL 1345432, at *1 (N.D. Ala. Mar. 23, 2015) (Little I). The Little I court remanded the case to the Commissioner because the ALJ did not address Ms. Little's “70% service connected disability [VA] rating . . . noted throughout her medical records” or the compensation and pension exam (C & P exam) for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) administered by Dr. Clark. Little I, 2015 WL 1345432, at *6.

         The ALJ held another hearing and issued an unfavorable decision on July 20, 2016. (Doc. 5-11, pp. 60-61). The Appeals Council declined Ms. Little's request for review. (Doc. 5-3, pp. 9-11). Ms. Little appealed the Commissioner's final decision to this Court. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, ” the Court “review[s] the ALJ's ‘factual findings with deference' and [his] ‘legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'” Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's factual findings. “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In evaluating the administrative record, the Court may not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, ” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation omitted). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings, then the Court “must affirm even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings.” Costigan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).

         With respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991) (“The Secretary's failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted mandates reversal.”).


         To determine whether a claimant has proven that she is disabled, an ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The ALJ considers:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.

Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.

         In this case, the ALJ found that Ms. Little meets the insured status requirements through June 30, 2012. (Doc. 5-11, p. 13). Ms. Little has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 1, 2009, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 5-11, p. 14). The ALJ determined that Ms. Little suffers from three severe impairments: PTSD with agoraphobia, depression, and mild traumatic brain injury. (Doc. 5-11 p. 14). Based on his review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Little does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 5-11, p. 14).

         In light of Ms. Little's impairments, the ALJ evaluated her residual functional capacity. The ALJ determined that Ms. Little has the RFC to:

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: The claimant can perform simple tasks with a gradual introduction of new task assignments. She can maintain attention, concentration and pace to acceptably perform simple tasks for two-hour increments throughout the workday. She must not be assigned job duties to have direct interaction with the public and coworkers, except she can have occasional contact with her supervisors. She must be assigned no tandem tasks with coworkers (i.e., she must be able to complete her assigned responsibilities without having to work in tandem with coworkers.)

(Doc. 5-11, p. 16). Based on this RFC and vocational expert testimony, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Little is able to perform her past relevant work as a production assembler. (Doc. 5-11, p. 27). Relying on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines and expert testimony, the ALJ alternatively found that Ms. Little is capable of doing other jobs including hand packager, housekeeper, and production line solderer. (Doc. 5-11, p. 29). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that, through the date last insured, Ms. Little had not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 5-11, p. 29).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Ms. Little argues that the ALJ provided inadequate reasons for discounting the opinion of her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Huggins, and her 70% VA disability rating for PTSD. (Doc. 7). This opinion addresses the ALJ's analysis of Ms.

         Little's VA disability rating and then discusses the ALJ's treatment of the medical evidence from the VA.

         Ms. Little is a Gulf War army veteran. (Doc. 5-8, p. 8; Doc. 5-14, p. 11). She served in the Army from February 2001 through April 2004. (Doc. 5-14, p. 11). During her 2003 deployment, Ms. Little experienced two IED (improvised explosive device) blasts. (Doc. 5-8, p. 8). Ms. Little was in a truck that was less than ten feet away from the IEDs when they exploded. (Doc. 5-8, p. 8).

         Ms. Little saw the first IED explode and experienced ringing in her ears. (Doc. 5-8, p. 9). Ms. Little “closed her eyes and felt the [second] blast.” (Doc. 5-8, p. 9). Ms. Little remembers opening her eyes and realizing that “she needed to get out of the kill zone[.]” (Doc. 5-8, p. 9). Ms. Little left the area and “[found] her way back to the airport.” (Doc. 5-8, p. 9).

         Ms. Little discovered an unconscious passenger in the truck. (Doc. 5-8, p. 9). Ms. Little attempted to help the passenger by talking to him. (Doc. 5-8, p. 9). After arriving at the airport, the “passenger was medivac[k]ed.” (Doc. 5-8, p. 9). Ms. Little did not receive medical attention or an evaluation immediately after the event. (Doc. 5-8, p. 9).

         When Ms. Little “started refusing mission trips with unknown teams[, ]” she received a recommendation for therapy. (Doc. 5-8, p. 9). Ms. Little believed that “she had been left during the [IEDs] incident[.]” (Doc. 5-8, p. 9). Ms. Little “cannot account for details” that other soldiers in her battalion have shared about the IEDs incident, including a fire fight. (Doc. 5-8, p. 9). Ms. Little also learned later that their lieutenant waited for and did not abandon her. (Doc. 5-8, p. 9).

         Dr. Huggins, a treating psychiatrist with the VA, diagnosed Ms. Little with chronic PTSD in August 2005. (Doc. 5-8, p. 9; Doc. 5-10, p. 26). Consult requests indicate that Ms. Little had a 70% service-connected disability rating attributable ...

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