United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division
C. Mullen, United States District Judge
MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff's
Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. No. 13) and the
Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 19).
Having carefully considered such motions, accompanying
memoranda, and the pleadings, the Court enters the following
findings, conclusions, and Order.
October 21, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for
a period of disability and disability insurance benefits,
alleging a disability onset date of July 1, 2011. (Doc. No.
10-1, at 18). The application was denied, first on March 31,
2015 and then upon reconsideration on July 24, 2015. (Doc.
No. 10-1, at 18). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing
before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Doc.
No. 10-1, at 18). That request was granted. (Doc. No. 10-1,
evaluating Plaintiff's alleged disability, the ALJ found
that the Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the
Social Security Act through December 31, 2016. (Doc. No.
10-1, at 18). The ALJ also engaged in a five-step sequential
review pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v).
(Doc. No. 10-1, at 20-29). As a part of that review, the ALJ
determined that: (1) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since the alleged onset of disability; (2)
Plaintiff had severe impairments (depression; cervical
degenerative joint disease; migraine headaches; and plantar
fasciitis); (3) none of the Plaintiff's impairments or
combination of impairments meet the severity of those listed
in 20 CFR 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) given the
Plaintiff's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”), she cannot perform any past relevant
work; (5) and, considering the Plaintiff's age,
education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that
exist in significant numbers in the national economy that
Plaintiff can perform. (Doc. No. 10-1, at 20-29).
Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled
within the meaning of the Social Security Act and denied
Plaintiff's application for a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits on October 6, 2017. (Doc. No.
10-1, at 29).
requested review of that decision by the Appeals Council on
October 6, 2017. (Doc. No. 10-1, at 4). The Appeals Council
denied that request on March 23, 2018, making the ALJ's
decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security (“Commissioner”). (Doc. No. 10-1, at 4).
Thereafter, Plaintiff timely filed this action, seeking
judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.
(Doc. No. 2).
Standard of Review
review of a final decision of the Commissioner in Social
Security cases is authorized pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
405(g), but review is limited to consideration of (1) whether
the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and (2)
whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's
decision. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401
(1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th
Cir. 1990). Review of the evidence is not de novo.
Smith v. Schwieker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir.
1986). Instead, review is limited to whether there was
“such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Richardson, 402 U.S. at 400.
made the following assignments of error: (1) the ALJ
improperly gave less than substantial weight to
Plaintiff's VA disability rating, (2) the ALJ improperly
assessed the credibility of Plaintiff's subjective,
pain-related statements, and (3) the ALJ's RFC evaluation
frustrates meaningful review. (Doc. No. 14, at 4-11). The
undersigned's review of the record makes clear that the
ALJ did not err.
The Weight Assigned to Plaintiff's VA Disability
Plaintiff argues that “if the ALJ assigns anything
other than substantial weight to a VA disability rating,
” the ALJ must provide “a detailed
explanation” and must have a “substantial
basis” for that deviation, and she argues that the ALJ
failed to satisfy that requirement. (Doc. No. 14, at 4).
While disability determinations made by other agencies do not
bind the Social Security Administration (“SSA”),
the ALJ must “evaluate all the evidence in the case
record that may have a bearing on a determination or decision
of disability.” SSR 06-03p, 71 Fed. Reg. 45593, *45594
(August 9, 2006). Thus, “another agency's
disability determination ‘cannot be ignored and must be
considered.'” Bird v. Comm'r of SSA, 699
F.3d 337, 343 (4th Cir. 2012). Further, because the VA and
SSA have a similar purpose and evaluation methodology, the
SSA “must give substantial weight to a VA
rating.” Id. “However, because the SSA
employs its own standards for evaluating a claimant's
alleged disability . . . an ALJ may give less weight to a VA
disability rating when the record before the ALJ clearly
demonstrates that such a deviation is appropriate.”
the ALJ acknowledged that typically the SSA must give
substantial weight to a VA rating but clearly explained why
less weight should be given to Plaintiff's VA rating: (1)
“[T]he evidence of the record as a whole suggests
[Plaintiff's] pain and symptoms have been fairly well
controlled with medication, ” (2) Plaintiff “has
presented for urgent treatment due to her headaches on only
one occasion and she has received little ongoing mental
health treatment, ” (3) and there have been
“fairly minimal longitudinal objective findings on
examination and she has reported a wide variety of activities
of daily living.” (Doc. No. 10-1, at 28). Plaintiff
next complains that the ALJ did not include any citations to
the record when providing that explanation. (Doc. No. 14, at
4). However, that is not the case. The ALJ made clear
reference to his prior analysis, (Doc. No. 10-1, at 26)
(“as outlined above”), where he provided ample
citation to the record, (Doc. No. 10-1, at 21-26) (citing
Exhibit 4F for his statement that Plaintiff's migraine
pain and symptoms have been fairly well controlled, Exhibit
5F for his statement that Plaintiff presented to urgent care
for migraine symptoms only once, Exhibit 4F for his
assessment of Plaintiff's ongoing mental health
treatment, and Exhibit 4F in support of his statement
regarding Plaintiff's healthy lifestyle and active
living). Thus, the ALJ did not err when assigning less weight
to Plaintiff's VA disability rating.
also argues, in passing, that the ALJ erred when he
“failed to . . . explain why he assigned ‘great
weight' to the non-examining State agency physicians'
opinions or how they were deserving of more weight than the
VA medical records.” (Doc. No. 14, at 8). However, the
ALJ did explain why he awarded great weight to the
non-examining State agency physicians' opinions,
explaining that “[t]heir opinions . . . are supported
by . . . evidence that documents good control of
[Plaintiff's] pain and symptoms . . . [and] are
consistent with the fact that she has had fairly normal
mental status[es] [and] by . . . [Plaintiff's] reported
activities of daily living.” (Doc. No. 10-1, at 27).
Regardless, Plaintiff provides no support for her position
that where an ALJ assigns greater weight to the State agency
physicians' opinions than to VA ...