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Rucker v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

September 20, 2016

ANN M. RUCKER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Michael F. Urbanski United States District Judge.

         This social security disability appeal was referred to the Honorable Robert S. Ballou, United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), for proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition. The Magistrate Judge filed a report and recommendation on August 4, 2016, recommending that Plaintiff Ann M. Rucker's motion for summary judgment be granted in part, the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment denied, and the Commissioner's final decision remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further consideration consistent with this opinion. The government filed objections to the Magistrate Judge's report, ECF No. 25, and this matter is now ripe for the court's consideration. For the reasons that follow, the court overrules the objections of the Commissioner and adopts the magistrate judge's report and recommendation in full.

         I.

         It is not the province of a federal court to make administrative disability decisions. Rather, judicial review of disability cases is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's conclusion that the plaintiff failed to meet her burden of proving disability. See Hays v. Sullivan. 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). Evidence is substantial when, considering the record as a whole, it might be deemed adequate to support a conclusion by a reasonable mind, Richardson v. Perales. 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), or when it would be sufficient to refuse a directed verdict in a jury trial. Smith v. Chater. 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996). Substantial evidence is not a "large or considerable amount of evidence, " Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), but is more than a mere scintilla and somewhat less than a preponderance. Perales. 402 U.S. at 401: Laws. 368 F.2d at 642. If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be affirmed. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Perales. 402 U.S. at 401.

         Regardless of evidence contained in the record, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") must sufficiently articulate his findings such that the district court can undertake a meaningful review. Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 189(4th Cir. 2016)(quoting Radford v. Colvin. 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013))("a necessary predicate to engaging in substantial evidence review is a record of the basis for the ALJ's ruling, including a discussion of which evidence that ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence); Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015)(quoting Cichocki v. Astrue. 729 F.3d 172, 177 (2d Cir. 2013))("remand may be appropriate... where an ALJ fails to assess a claimant's capacity to perform relevant functions, despite contradictory evidence in the record, or where other inadequacies in the ALJ's review frustrate meaningful review"). Thus, district courts must remand cases where the ALJ's opinion lacks specific analysis and fails to create a logical nexus between evidence and die conclusion.

         Further, when die court refers a plaintiffs social security disability appeal to the magistrate judge for report and recommendation, the parties are bound by the requirements of Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 72(b) permits a party to "serve and file specific written objections" to a magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations within fourteen days of being served with a copy of the report. See also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The Fourth Circuit has held that an objecting party must do so "with sufficient specificity so as reasonably to alert the district court of the true ground for the objection." United States v. Midgette. 478 F.3d 616, 622 (4th Cir. 2007), cert denied. 127 S.Ct. 3032 (2007).

To conclude otherwise would defeat the purpose of requiring objections. We would be permitting a party to appeal any issue that was before the magistrate judge, regardless of the nature and scope of objections made to the magistrate judge's report. Either the district court would then have to review every issue in the magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations or courts of appeals would be required to review issues that the district court never considered. In either case, judicial resources would be wasted and the district court's effectiveness based on help from magistrate judges would be undermined.

Id. The district court must determine de novo any portion of the magistrate judge's report and recommendation to which a proper objection has been made. "The district court may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); accord 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         If, however, a party "'makes general or conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations, '" de novo review is not required. Diprospero v. Colvin, No. 5:13-CV-00088, 2014 WL 1669806, at *1 (W.D. N.C. Apr. 28, 2014) (quoting Howard Yellow Cabs. Inc. v. United States. 987 F.Supp. 469, 474 (W.D. N.C. 1997) (quoting Orpiano v. Johnson. 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982))). "The court will not consider those objections by the plaintiff that are merely conclusory or attempt to object to the entirety of the Report, without focusing the court's attention on specific errors therein." Camper v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, No. 4:08-CV-69, 2009 WL 9044111, at *2 (E.D. Va. May 6, 2009), affd, 373 F.App'x 346 (4th Cir.), cert-denied. 131 S.Ct. 610 (2010); see Midgette. 478 F.3d at 621 ("Section 636(b)(1) does not countenance a form of generalized objection to cover all issues addressed by the magistrate judge; it contemplates that a party's objection to a magistrate judge's report be specific and particularized, as the statute directs the district court to review only 'thoseportions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made."') Such general objections "have the same effect as a failure to object, or as a waiver of such objection." Moon v. BWX Technologies. 742 F.Supp.2d 827, 829 (W.D. Va. 2010), affd, 498 F.App'x 268 (4th Cir. 2012); see also Thomas v. Arn. 474 U.S. 140, 154 (1985) ("[T]he statute does not require the judge to review an issue de novo if no objections are filed").

         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. See Veney v. Astrue. 539 F.Supp.2d 841, 844-45 (W.D. Va. 2008). As the court noted in Veney:

Allowing a litigant to obtain de novo review of her entire case by merely reformatting an earlier brief as an objection "mak[es] the initial reference to the magistrate useless. The functions of the district court are effectively duplicated as both the magistrate and the district court perform identical tasks. This duplication of time and effort wastes judicial resources rather than saving them, and runs contrary to the purposes of the Magistrates Act." Howard [v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.]. 932 F.2d [505, ] [] 509 [(6th Cir. 1991)].

539 F.Supp.2d at 846. A plaintiff who reiterates her previously-raised arguments will not be given "the second bite at the apple she seeks;" instead, her re-filed brief will be treated as a general objection, which has the same effect as would a failure to object. Id.

         II.

         The Commissioner objects to the magistrate judge's application of Mascio and Monroe to the present case. ECF No. 25. Specifically, the Commissioner argues that the ALJ sufficiently discussed Rucker's medical records to permit meaningful judicial review of the ALJ's findings regarding Rucker's residual functioning capacity ("RFC"). Id. In so arguing, the Commissioner relies on a number of cases from this district decided prior to Monroe and Mascio. Id. However, just as in Mascio, "[b]ecause we are left to guess about how the ALJ arrived at his conclusions on [Rucker's] ability to perform relevant functions, " remand is appropriate in this case. 780 F.3d at 637. The court has reviewed the Commissioner's objections de novo and concludes that the ALJ failed to adequately explain his reasoning for giving limited weight to the opinions of multiple physicians who testified in ...


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