United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division
February 10, 2014
TRACIE REAVIS, pro se Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION (Overruling Objection to and Adopting Report and Recommendation)
HENRY E. HUDSON, District Judge.
This is an action challenging the Social Security Administration ("SSA")'s denial of disability ("DIB") benefits and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments to Tracie Reavis ("Plaintiff'), who proceeds pro se. The matter is presently before the Court on the Report and Recommendation ("R&R" (ECF No. 19).) of the Honorable David J. Novak, United States Magistrate Judge ("Magistrate Judge") concerning the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment and Plaintiffs objections thereto. The Court will dispense with oral argument because it would not materially aid the decisional process.
For the reasons set forth herein, Plaintiff's objection will be overruled and the R&R will be adopted. Accordingly, Defendant's motion for summary judgment will be granted; Plaintiffs motion for summary judgment will be denied; and the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.
A. Procedural History
Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI on July 28, 2009, alleging disability under the Social Security Act (the "Act") due to multitude of ailments, including degenerative disc disease, arthritis, a pinched nerve, bursitis in her hip, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, sleep apnea, thyroid disease, and depression with an alleged onset date of May 20, 2007. (R. at 74-75, 84-85, 214, 220, 266.) Disability Determination Services ("DDS") initially denied Plaintiffs application for benefits on November 24, 2009, and again on reconsideration on June 30, 2010. (R. at 82, 92, 110-11, 126-27, 133-35, 140-42, 150-63).
Following Plaintiff's request, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALP) conducted a hearing and determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (R. at 16-29.) Though Plaintiff had severe impairments, none met or equaled listing level severity, specifically for § 1.04 and § 12.04. (R. at 18-21.) The Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the All's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, subject only to judicial review by this Court. (R. at 1-4).
On December 4, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court, contesting the Commissioner's decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff challenges both the ALJ's finding that her impairments were not severe enough to meet the listings' criteria and the ALJ's assignment of weight to the evidence. (Compl. at 7, ECF No. 3.) The Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 11) were referred to the Magistrate Judge for R&R. After a detailed analysis, the Magistrate Judge recommended the final decision of the Commissioner be affirmed. (R&R at 39.)
Plaintiff has now filed an objection to the R&R. In her objection, Plaintiff again disagrees with the Commissioner's finding that she does not meet the requirements for a disability. (Response to R&R, ECF No. 20.) Describing her condition and interactions with her doctors, she asks the court to consider facts from her physicians instead of medical opinions. (Response to R&R.)
B. Medical History
Plaintiff is a high school graduate who has previously worked as an insurance agent, a corrections officer, and as a manager at a fast food restaurant and a retail store. (R. at 267.) She last worked in May of 2007. (R. at 19, 40, 267.)
Plaintiff has sought treatment from several doctors since 2007 with a wide variety of complaints, including back, shoulder, hip, knee, and neck pain. (R. at 395-96, 387, 400, 394, 654, 671, 607, 447-52, 445, 570, 433, 865, 891.) These doctors compiled copious records relating to their observations, opinions, and treatments. (R. at 388-98, 400, 405, 442, 448, 451, 463, 469, 580, 639, 656, 735, 744, 750, 832, 891.) In addition to her own doctors, a state agency physician, Dr. James Darden, opined on Plaintiff's ability to complete various work related tasks on October 24, 2009. (R. at 80.)
Concerned about her mental state, Plaintiff began treatment with psychologist Dr. J. Michael Griffin in 2004. (R. at 415, 682-83, 685, 689.) Through the course of many visits, Dr. Griffin compiled a record of his observations and opinions. (R. at 410-11, 680-692, 708). Additionally, the doctors treating Plaintiffs various physical ailments recorded her mental state in their notes. (R. at 388, 433, 436, 439, 442, 445, 448, 451, 739, 741.) On October 1, 2009 and again on June 3, 2010, Dr. Griffin completed Mental Status Evaluation Forms for the Virginia Disability Determination Services. (R. at 701-06, 816-20.)
On November 23, 2009, a state agency psychologist, Dr. Leslie Montgomery, opined that Plaintiff did not meet the requirements of listing § 12.04. (R. at 78-79.) Another state agency psychologist, Dr. Linda Doughtery, came to the same conclusion on June 30, 2010. (R. at 104.)
In determining that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act, the All relied on the wealth of records generated by the various doctors. (R. 16-29)
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
A. Review of the Commissioner's Final Decision
When the Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits, it is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision was supported by substantial evidence on the record and whether the proper legal standards were applied in evaluating the evidence. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (citing Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the Court is required to examine the record as a whole, but it may not "undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted); Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig v. Charter, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)). If the ALJ's determination is not supported by substantial evidence on the record, or if the ALJ has made an error of law, the district court must reverse the decision. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).
B. Review of the Report and Recommendation
This Court reviews de novo any part of the Magistrate Judge's R&R to which a party has properly objected in writing. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); FED. R. Clv. P. 72(b)(3). A proper objection must reasonably alert the district court of the true ground for objection with sufficient specificity. United States v. Midgette, 478 F.3d 616, 622 (4th Cir. 2007).
Any part of the Magistrate Judge's disposition that has not been properly objected to is reviewed only for clear error. See FED. R. Civ. P. 72 advisory committee's note (noting that "[w]hen no timely objection is filed, the court need only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation." (citing Campbell v. United States Dist. Court, 501 F.2d 196, 206 (9th Cir. 1974)).
In conducting a review of the entire record, the Magistrate Judge focused on Plaintiff's three arguments. First, Plaintiff challenged the ALJ's determination that her physical impairments did not meet the requirements of § 1.04. (Pl.'s Mem. at 1, ECF No. 14). The Magistrate Judge found numerous sources in the record supporting the ALJ's finding. (R&R at 20.) Second, Plaintiff argued that the ALJ erred in determining she did not meet the listing requirements of § 12.04. (Pl.'s Mem. at 1.) Finding the Plaintiff could not prove she satisfied all of the relevant medical criteria for this requirement, the Magistrate Judge therefore concluded she could not qualify for a disability under § 12.04. (R&R at 33.) Finally, Plaintiff contends that the All assigned improper weight to the non-treating state agency doctors. (Pl.'s Mem. at 3.) Since the Magistrate Judge's role is not to reweigh the evidence, he instead found the ALJ properly exercised his authority in assigning more weight to the state agency physicians. (R&R at 34-35.) In all instances, the R&R offers a detailed explanation of the Magistrate Judge's review of the record.
Because Plaintiff has not filed a specific objection to the R&R, the Court will not conduct a de novo review. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); FED. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3). A vague and generalized objection falls short of the standard for de novo review. Midgette, 478 F.3d at 622; Page v. Lee, 337 F.3d 411, 417 n.3 (4th Cir. 2003) (noting that "petitioner's failure to object to the magistrate judge's recommendation with the specificity required by the Rule is, standing alone, a sufficient basis upon which to affirm the judgment of the district court"). Furthermore, "a general objection to the entirety of the magistrate's report has the same effects as would a failure to object." Veney v. Astrue, 539 F.Supp.2d 841, 846 (W.D. Va. 2008) (quoting Howard v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 932 F.2d 505, 509 (6th Cir. 1991)).
Here, the Plaintiff failed to identify any specific issue in the Magistrate Judge's R&R to which she objected. In fact, she did not even mention the R&R. Instead, her response only makes general objections to the Commissioner's decision and challenges the completeness of the doctors' records. She simply renewed her arguments in favor of classifying her as disabled. Essentially, the Plaintiff's general objection asks this Court to reweigh the evidence - an exercise beyond this Court's authority. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012).
Due to the lack of specific objections, this Court can only review the R&R for clear error on the face of the record. See FED. R. Civ. P. 72 advisory committee notes; Williams v. Astrue, No. 2:09-cv-60, 2010 WL 395631, at *3 (E.D. Va. Feb. 2, 2010). In reviewing the R&R and the face of the record, this Court finds no such clear error. Therefore, the ALJ's decision must stand and the Court will adopt the R&R.
Based on the foregoing analysis, this Court will adopt the Report and Recommendation of the Magistrate Judge. Accordingly, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted. Because the Plaintiff did not specify her objections to the R&R, the Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.
An appropriate Order will accompany this Memorandum Opinion.