United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division
TERRENCE W. BOYLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
cause comes before the Court on cross-motions for judgment on
the pleadings. A hearing was held on these matters before the
undersigned on July 24, 2017, in Raleigh, North Carolina. For
the reasons discussed below, the decision of the Commissioner
brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3) for review of the final decision of the
Commissioner denying his claim for disability and disability
insurance benefits ("DIB") pursuant to Title II of
the Social Security Act. Plaintiff protectively filed his
application on March 15, 2013, with amended alleged
disability onset date beginning September 18, 2008. After
initial denials, a hearing was held before an Administrative
Law Judge ("ALJ") who issued an unfavorable ruling.
The decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the
Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs
request for review. Plaintiff then timely sought review of
the Commissioner's decision in this Court.
the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), and
1383(c)(3), this Court's review of the Commissioner's
decision is limited to determining whether the decision, as a
whole, is supported by substantial evidence and whether the
Commissioner employed the correct legal standard.
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).
Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650,
653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation and
individual is considered disabled if he is unable "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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The
Act further provides that an individual "shall be
determined to be under a disability only if his physical or
mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he
is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot,
considering his age, education, and work experience, engage
in any other line of substantial gainful work which exists in
the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
issued by the Commissioner establish a five-step sequential
evaluation process to be followed in a disability case. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The
claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four,
but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five.
See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).
If a decision regarding disability can be made at any step of
the process, however, the inquiry ceases. See 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).
one, if the Social Security Administration determines that
the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful
activity, the claim is denied. If not, then step two asks
whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination
of impairments. If the claimant has a severe impairment, it
is compared at step three to those in the Listing of
Impairments ("Listing") in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404,
Subpt. P, App. 1. If the claimant's impairment meets or
medically equals a Listing, disability is conclusively
presumed. If not, at step four, the claimant's residual
functional capacity ("RFC") is assessed to
determine if the claimant can perform his past relevant work.
If so, the claim is denied. If the claimant cannot perform
past relevant work, then the burden shifts to the
Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant, based on
his age, education, work experience, and RFC, can perform
other substantial gainful work. If the claimant cannot
perform other work, then he is found to be disabled. See 20
C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).
one, the ALJ determined that plaintiff met the insured status
requirements and had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since his alleged onset date. Plaintiffs
degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine
and muscle cramping were considered severe impairments at
step two, but were not found alone or in combination to meet
or equal a listing at step three. The ALJ concluded that
plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work with
additional exertional limitations. The ALJ then found that
plaintiff was unable to return to his past relevant work but
that, considering plaintiffs age, education, work experience,
and RFC, there were other jobs that existed in significant
numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform
such as dowel inspector, fabric cutter and assembly press
operator. Thus, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not
disabled under the Act.
makes an RFC assessment based on all of the relevant medical
and other evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). An RFC
should reflect the most that a claimant can do, despite the
claimant's limitations. Id. An RFC finding
should also reflect the claimant's ability to perform
sustained work-related activities in a work setting on
regular and continuing basis, meaning eight-hours per day,
five days per week. SSR 96-8p; Hines v. Barnhart,
453 F.3d 559, 562 (4th Cir. 2006). The ALJ must "explain
how any material inconsistencies or ambiguities in the
evidence in the case record were considered and
resolved." SSR 96-8p. If an opinion from a treating
source is well-supported by and consistent with the objective
medical evidence in the record, it may be entitled to
controlling weight. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c),
416.927(c). Where an opinion is inconsistent with other
evidence in the record, the ALJ need not give that opinion
any significant weight. Id.; see also Craig v.
Chater, 76 F.3d at 585, 590 (4th Cir. 1996) ("[I]f
a physician's opinion is not supported by clinical
evidence or if it is inconsistent with other substantial
evidence, it should be accorded significantly less
weight"). However, ALJ's decision to do so must be
accompanied by "a narrative discussion" that
discusses "how the evidence supports each conclusion,
" such that the ALJ's decision is sufficiently
specific to make it clear to a reviewing district court
"why the opinion was not adopted." See SSR
96-8p. Though an ALJ is entitled to resolve inconsistencies
between examining medical opinions, SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL
374184, at *7, the ALJ's decision must be supported by
substantial evidence, and must adequately address the
opinions of treating and consulting physicians and properly
explain deviancies between her opinion and the record
ALJ's decision in this instance is not supported by
substantial evidence. The ALJ found plaintiff capable of
sedentary work, except that he is limited to occasional
postural activities and only occasional flexion, extension
and rotation of the neck. This conclusion is not supported by
the record, because the ALJ improperly discounted the
evidence of plaintiff s psychiatric impairments and
improperly evaluated the effects of plaintiff s pain and
difficulties with social functioning on his ability to
perform work related activities.
the ALJ improperly weighed the VA disability determination.
The VA found plaintiff 100% disabled due to his major
depressive disorder with psychotic features within the
relevant timeframe. Tr. at 240. The VA also assigned several
other ratings for his physical impairments. Tr. at 240-41.
However, the ALJ gave little weight to the VA disability
rating for plaintiffs mental disorders, stating that the VA
rating "differs significantly from the undersigned's
obligation to consider all impairments, regardless of origin
and to address with functional specificity how the
claimant's vocational capacities are affected, " and
also stating that the VA decision failed to explain the basis
upon which the percentages were assigned. Tr. at 26. For
these reasons, the ALJ gave the VA rating of complete
disability only "some credibility as a general indicator
of the severity of any particular impairment."
Id. Although not binding on the Commissioner,
disability decisions by other governmental agencies
"cannot be ignored and must be considered" in
making a disability determination. S.S.R. 06-03p, 2006 WL
2329939, at *6 (Aug. 9, 2006). Additionally, the Fourth
Circuit has held that "in making a disability
determination, the SSA must give substantial weight to a VA
disability rating." Bird v. Commissioner, 699
F.3d 337, 343 (4th Cir. 2012). Only where the ALJ points to
clear reasons for deviation can the ALJ give less weight to a
VA rating. Id. The ALJ did not do so here, and his
disregard of the rating was therefore in error.
the ALJ failed to make clear what portions he found credible
or not credible and why, frustrating meaningful review.
Further, "simply noting the fact that the VA and SSA
employ different standards, in and of itself, is insufficient
to justify deviation under Bird." Pridgen v.
Colvin, 4:15-CV-95-F, 2016 WL 4047058, at *3-4 (E.D.
N.C. Jun. 30, 2016) (adopted Jul. 27, 2016). Simply noting
that the VA and SSA employ different standards is
insufficient to justify a decision to not afford the rating
substantial weight and does not explain why or how the rating
is not supported by the record evidence. Essentially, the ALJ
failed to adequately ...