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Douglas v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division

September 17, 2019

SHERRYANN NICOLE DOUGLAS Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Graham C. Mullen, United States District Judge

         THIS 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.

         I. Background

         On 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, at 18).

         In 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).

         Plaintiff 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).

         II. Standard of Review

         Judicial 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.

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff 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.

         A. The Weight Assigned to Plaintiff's VA Disability Rating

          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.'”[1] 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.” Id.

         Here, 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.

         Plaintiff 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 ...


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