United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division
D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for
Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 14) and Defendant's Motion for
Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 15). Plaintiff, through counsel,
seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative
decision on her application for disability benefits under 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons set forth below,
Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, the
Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and
the Commissioner's ruling is REMANDED for further
proceedings consistent with this opinion.
procedural history is not in dispute. Plaintiff, Katrina
Becker, applied for disability insurance benefits on April
12, 2012, indicating that her onset date of disability was
June 7, 2007. (Administrative Transcript (“Tr”.)
20, 157-58). Plaintiff's date last insured for Title II
benefits was June 30, 2010. Plaintiff's application was
denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 102-06,
108-12). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 121-22).
In a decision dated September 3, 2014, the ALJ denied
Plaintiff's claim, finding that she was not disabled from
June 7, 2007, through her date last insured, June 30, 2010.
(Tr. 20-28). The ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim at step
five of the Social Security Act's sequential process,
finding that Becker could perform work such as cleaner,
laundry worker, or nut and bolt assembler. (Tr. 28). January
13, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request
for review, thus rendering the ALJ's decision the final
decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review. (Tr.
filed the present action seeking judicial review under 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff has two assignments of error
in her brief. (Doc. No. 14). First, Plaintiff contends that
the ALJ did not properly evaluate the Veterans
Administration's (“VA”) rating for her
service-connected disabilities in making its determination.
Id. Secondly, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred
by failing to give sufficient weight to the opinion of
Becker's physician, Dr. Victoria DeFilippo. Id.
Plaintiff requests a remand to the ALJ to address these
errors. Id. The parties' Motions are now ripe
Standard of Review
the Social Security Act, there is a five-step sequential
process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1). Step one is to determine
whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful
activity; if claimant is engaged in substantial gainful
activity, they will be found not disabled. Id.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i). Step two is to determine whether
the claimant has a severe medically determinable physical or
mental impairment or a combination of impairments that is
severe and meets the duration requirement. Id.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). At step three, if the
claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets
or medically equals one of the listings in 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, then the claimant will be found
disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). Step four
is to determine whether the claimant has the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the
requirements of his past relevant work. Id. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Lastly, step five is to consider whether
the claimant is able to make an adjustment to other work,
considering claimant's RFC, age, education, and work
experience. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).
Court's review of a final decision by the Commissioner is
authorized pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and §
1383(c)(3). This Court's review is limited to 1) whether
substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision
and 2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal
standards. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456
(4th Cir. 1990); see also Hancock v. Astrue, 667
F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). A reviewing court may not
re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute its own judgment for that of
the Commissioner. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589
(4th Cir. 1996); see also Johnson v. Barnhart, 434
F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005). Even if the reviewing court
would have come to a different conclusion, it must uphold the
Commissioner's decision if the decision is supported by
substantial evidence. Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d
838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982). The substantial evidence standard
is met if a reasonable mind can use the amount of evidence to
support a conclusion. Craig, 76 F.3d at 589. The
substantial evidence level rests somewhere above a mere
scintilla of evidence, but may be lower than a preponderance
of the evidence. Id.
raises two issues for this Court to consider if remand is
appropriate: (1) whether the ALJ properly evaluated the
claimant's VA rating decision, and (2) whether the ALJ
erred by failing to weigh the opinion of claimant's
treating physician, Dr. Victoria DeFilippo. This Court will
now consider these issues in turn.
VA Rating Decision
contends the ALJ did not properly evaluate the VA's
rating of 80% for her service-connected disabilities. At the
disability hearing, the ALJ noted that the VA made its rating
after Plaintiff's date last insured. (Tr. 25). This is
significant because a claimant must show that she became
disabled prior to the expiration of her insured status in
order to be eligible for disability insurance benefits.
U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(A), 423(c)(1); Roberts v.
Schweiker, 667 F.2d at 1144. Because the rating by the
VA does not address the time period prior to the date last
insured, the ALJ found it to be irrelevant to this case.
argues the VA's decision to only begin paying disability
on September 4, 2012, does not necessarily indicate that the
Plaintiff was not disabled before this date. According to
Plaintiff's counsel, Plaintiff could not request to
reopen her prior claim with the VA before this September
date. The reopening of the claim and the VA's decision
were based on VA medical records of Plaintiff's
psychological problems. (Tr. 162). Plaintiff argues that no
evidence was offered to suggest that Plaintiff's
condition worsened from the date of her initial claim to the
date the request for reopening was made.
Court does not find this argument persuasive. Mere evidence
that impairment exists does not entitle a claimant to
benefits. Here, Plaintiff is unable to show that the VA's
decision provides evidence of a point in time prior to the
date last insured where ...