United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
TERRENCE W. BOYLE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
cause comes before the Court on cross-motions for judgment on
the pleadings. A hearing on the motions was held before
the undersigned on September 20, 2017, at Raleigh, North
Carolina. For the reasons that follow, the decision of the
Commissioner is reversed.
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 applied for DIB on
January 9, 2014, and alleged an onset date of December 9,
2013. After initial denials, an Administrative Law Judge
(ALJ) held a hearing and thereafter issued an unfavorable
ALJ's decision became the 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 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. §
one, the ALJ found that plaintiff met the insured status
requirements through June 30, 2019, and that he had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged
onset date. The ALJ found plaintiffs degenerative disc
disease, anxiety disorder, and affective disorder to be
severe impairments at step two but found that plaintiff did
not have an impairment or combination of impairments which
met or equaled a Listing at step three. The ALJ then found
that plaintiff could perform light work with limitations,
including being permitted to change positions every half hour
and use a cane for walking. At step four the ALJ found that
plaintiff could not return to his past relevant work as a
police officer and truck driver but that, considering
plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC,
plaintiff could perform jobs which existed in significant
numbers in the national economy. Those jobs included laundry
classifier, egg candler, and small products assembler. Thus,
the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled from December
9, 2013, through the date of her decision.
found that a limitation to light work would accommodate
plaintiffs degenerative disc disease, but such conclusion is
not supported by substantial evidence. An RFC should reflect
the most that a claimant can do, despite the claimant's
limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). 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). Light work involves
lifting no more than twenty pounds at a time, frequently
lifting and carrying ten pounds at a time, and requires a
good deal of standing or walking. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567.
Veteran's Administration (VA) assessed plaintiff as
having 100% permanent and total disability and further found
plaintiff to be unemployable. Tr. 514. A determination of
unemployability by the VA may only be made where a veteran is
unable to "secure and follow a substantially gainful
occupation by reason of service-connected disabilities."
36 C.F.R. § 4.16. The ALJ addressed the VA's
disability and unemployability ratings, but dismissed them in
cursory fashion, affording them little and no weight.
Specifically in regard to plaintiffs VA disability rating,
the ALJ gave the determination little weight because it was
based on diagnoses and clinical findings rather than
functional limitations, including the ability to sit, stand,
walk, lift, and carry, experienced by plaintiff.
disability determination by the VA must be given substantial
weight unless the record before the ALJ demonstrates that
less weight is appropriate. Bird v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 343 (4th Cir. 2012). Here,
the ALJ has clearly explained his rationale for discounting
the VA's opinions, but such rationale is not supported by
substantial evidence. Rather, when considered together, the
VA's ratings, plaintiffs treating physician's