United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Norfolk Division
OPINION AND ORDER
Coke Morgan, Jr. Senior United States District Judge
matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Samuel Nathaniel
Kearson's ("Plaintiff) Objections to Magistrate
Judge's Report and Recommendation, Doc. 16, and on
Plaintiffs and Defendant Acting Commissioner's
("Defendant") cross-Motions for Summary Judgment,
Docs. 9, 12. For the reasons below, the Court SUSTAINS
Plaintiffs objections and DECLINES to adopt the portions of
the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation
("R&R"), Doc. 15, to which Plaintiff objects.
The Court thus DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary
Judgment. Doc. 12. The Court GRANTS Plaintiffs Motion for
Summary Judgment, Doc. 9, to the extent it seeks reversal and
remand of Defendant's decision and DENIES it to the
extent it seeks entry of an order directing the award of
benefits. Therefore, the Court VACATES and REMANDS
Defendant's decision for further administrative
does not object to the recitation of the procedural and
factual background of this case contained in the R&R,
which sets forth, inter alia, the following facts.
See Doc. 16 at 1. Plaintiff filed an application for
disability insurance benefits ("DIB") with the Social
Security Administration ("SSA") on February 5,
2014, alleging a disability onset date of August 1, 2013.
R&R at 2. The application alleged that Plaintiff suffered
from "post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"),
traumatic brain injury residuals, post-concussion problems,
thoracic strain, lumbar strain, migraines, sleep apnea,
pelvic stress, vertigo, residuals of a wrist injury, and
insomnia." Id. at 3; R. 63, 71. Plaintiff claims
that these debilitating conditions prevent him from working.
R&R at 3; R. 63. In the fifteen (15) years prior,
Plaintiff had worked as a truck driver and correctional
officer. R. 34-35. He had also been a soldier in the United
States Army from 2001 to 2008 and a defense contractor in the
Middle East from 2008 to 2012. Id. at
20-21. Plaintiffs application was denied
initially and upon reconsideration. R&R at 2. At Plaintiffs
request, an administrative hearing was conducted on October
27, 2014. Id. The Administrative Law Judge
("ALJ") concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled
within the meaning of the Social Security Act and denied
Plaintiffs claim for DIB. R. 29-62. Plaintiff sought to
appeal the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied
his request for review on December 12, 2014, making the
ALJ's decision Defendant's final decision. R&R at
2; see also R. 6-8; 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g),
1383(c)(3); 20 C.F.R. §§404.981, 416.1481.
April 22, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against
Defendant, seeking judicial review of the SSA's final
decision. See Doc. 1. Defendant filed an Answer on July 10,
2015. Doc. 3. After this Court referred the matter to the
Magistrate Judge on July 28, 2015, Doc. 5, the Parties filed
cross-motions for summary judgment, Docs. 9, 12. On April 28,
2016, the Magistrate Judge issued an R&R, which concludes
that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's decision,
that Plaintiff suffers "moderate" limitations,
R&R at 18; R. 18, and that Plaintiff is capable of
performing "light work, " R&R at 14; R. 19.
Accordingly, the Magistrate Judge RECOMMENDS that summary
judgment be GRANTED for Defendant. R&R at 25.
filed his objections to the R&R on May 10, 2016. Doc. 16.
Defendant filed a response to the objections on May 24, 2016,
Doc. 17, and this matter is now ripe for the Court's
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Court reviews de novo any part of a magistrate
judge's recommendation to which a party has properly
objected. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); see also Wright v.
Collins, 766 F.2d 841, 845 (4th Cir. 1985) (holding that
a party can appeal a district court's adoption of a
magistrate judge's findings only if the party objected to
the R&R). Objections must be "specific and
particularized" in order to "train[ ] the attention
of both the district court and the court of appeals upon only
those issues that remain in dispute after the magistrate
judge has made findings and recommendations." U.S.
v. Midgette, 478 F.3d 616, 621 (4th Cir. 2007).
"Additionally, objections that simply reiterate
arguments raised before the magistrate judge are considered
to be general objections to the entirety of the report and
recommendation, " which are treated as waivers or
failures to object. Hayslett v. Colvin, No.
7:14cv631, 2016 WL 196080, at *2 (W.D. Va. Mar. 30, 2016).
"[W]hen objections to strictly legal issues are raised
and no factual issues are challenged, " the district
court need not conduct a de novo review. Orpiano
v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982) (citing
Braxton v. Estelle, 641 F.2d 392 (5th Cir. 1981)).
The district court reviewing proper objections to the R&R
may then "accept, reject, or modify the recommended
disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter
to the magistrate judge with instructions." Fed.R.Civ.P.
exercising de novo review, the Court analyzes the
Commissioner's final decision using the same standard the
magistrate judge uses. Specifically, the Court's review
of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining
whether it was supported by substantial evidence on the
record and whether the proper legal standard was applied in
evaluating the evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Johnson
v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per
curiam). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence
as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion." Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305
U.S. 197, 229 (1938). It is "more than a mere scintilla
of evidence but may be somewhat less than a
preponderance." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d
640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). Importantly, in reviewing the
ALJ's decision, the Court does not "reweigh
conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or
substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ]."
Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 (quoting Craig v.
Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)) (internal
quotation marks omitted) (final alteration in original).
Thus, if the Court finds that substantial evidence supported
the ALJ's factual findings, even if evidence existed to
support contrary findings, the ALJ's factual findings
must be upheld. See id.
THE ALJ'S DECISION
the hearing before the ALJ on October 27, 2014, Plaintiff and
a vocational expert ("VE") testified. R. 29-62. On
November 12, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion finding
that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Id.
ALJ's five-step analysis resulted in the following
findings. (1) Plaintiff has not been engaged in substantial
gainful activity since August 1, 2013, the alleged onset
date. Id. at 17. (2) Plaintiff has the five (5)
severe impairments of "[ ]PTSD[ ], anxiety disorder,
degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, obstructive
sleep apnea, and headaches." Id. (3) Plaintiffs
impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the
impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix
1. Id. at 18. (4) Plaintiffs residual functioning
capacity ("RFC") is the ability to "perform
[l]ight work" with "only occasional postural
activity;" "avoid[ance of] concentrated exposure to
loud noise, vibration, and hazards;" "simple[, ]
routine[, ] repetitive tasks;" and "only occasional
and superficial interactions with public and
co-workers." Id. at 19. Thus, (5) Plaintiff is
unable to perform any past relevant work, Id. at 23,
but (6) he can perform jobs existing in significant numbers
in the national economy, Id. at 24. The ALJ
consequently found that Plaintiff has not suffered a defined
disability since August 1, 2013. Id. at 25.
the ALJ did find that "the claimant's medically
determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to
cause the alleged symptoms, " he stated that Plaintiffs
"statements concerning the intensity, persistence and
limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible
.. .." Id. at 20. The ALJ identified a
"significant treatment gap" related to Plaintiffs
mental impairments between September 2013 and March 2014.
Id. at 21. The ALJ also harbored "serious
doubts" about the severity of Plaintiff s headaches,
which allegedly started in 2004 or 2005, when he had
completed only half of his Army career. Id.
Plaintiff not only continued his Army career through 2008,
but earned received "fantastic
earnings" as a defense contractor until 2012, while
the headaches continued. Id. at 21, 51.
disagrees with the ALJ's conclusion that he is ineligible
for DIB. See Doc. 10 at 1-2. In his motion for summary
judgment, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in (1) failing
to account for all effects of Plaintiff s mental impairments
on his concentration, persistence, or pace in his RFC and (2)
relying on vocational testimony that failed to account for
all effects of Plaintiffs mental impairments. Id. at
17-22. Defendant responds in her motion for summary judgment
that "Plaintiff misconstrues the holding of
Mascio" and "fails to cite a single piece of
evidence in his argument that would support greater
limitations than those already in the RFC." Doc. 13 at
12. Defendant argues that the ALJ's assessment of
Plaintiff s limitations "with respect to concentration,
persistence, or pace (occasional need for reminders and some
difficulty following written instructions), do not indicate
in any way that Plaintiff would be off-task while in a work
setting." Id. at 16.
R&R, the Magistrate Judge rejects Plaintiffs arguments
and RECOMMENDS that the Acting Commissioner's final
decision be affirmed for three reasons. First, the ALJ
properly accounted for the effects of Plaintiffs impairments
on his concentration, persistence, or pace. Doc. 15 at 16-22.
Second, the VE's testimony contemplated a hypothetical
that accounted for all of Plaintiffs impairments.
Id. at 23. Third, the Magistrate Judge found that
the ALJ appropriately addressed the VA ratings decision.
Id. at 23-25.
objects to the R&R for the reasons stated in his Motion
for Summary Judgment: (1) the ALJ did not rely on substantial
evidence in determining Plaintiffs RFC and (2) the ALJ relied
on vocational testimony that failed to account for all
effects of Plaintiffs mental impairments. Doc. 16 at 2, 6-7.
Defendant cites a lack of "evidence that indicates that
the RFC failed to accommodate Plaintiffs medically
established mental impairments." Doc. 17 at 2. The
decision also complied with Mascio, Defendant argues,
"because the RFC reflects Plaintiffs actual limitations,
or lack thereof, which are supported by substantial
evidence." Id. (citing ...