United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Eastern Division
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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).
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.
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).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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
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).
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.”).
SUMMARY OF THE ALJ'S DECISION
determine whether a claimant has proven that she is disabled,
an ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The
(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.
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).
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
(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).
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.
VA disability rating and then discusses the ALJ's
treatment of the medical evidence from the VA.
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).
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).
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).
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).
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 ...