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Smith v. Colvin

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

September 30, 2016

ANGELA A. SMITH, Plaintiff,


          Elizabeth K. Dillon United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Angela A. Smith brought this action for review of defendant Carolyn W. Colvin's (the commissioner's) final decision denying her claims for supplemental security income (SSI) under the Social Security Act (the Act). See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2012) (authorizing a district court to enter judgment "affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security"). The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, which the court referred to United States Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou for a report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). In his report, the magistrate judge concluded that substantial evidence supported the commissioner's decision. (Dkt. No. 21.) Smith timely objected, and defendant filed a response to the objections. (Dkt. Nos. 22, 23.) After de novo review of the pertinent portions of the record, the report, and the filings by the parties, in conjunction with applicable law, the court agrees with, and will adopt in full, the magistrate judge's recommendation. Accordingly, defendant's motion for summary judgment will be granted, and plaintiffs motion for summary judgment will be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The court adopts the recitation of facts and procedural background as set forth in the report. (Dkt. No. 21.)


         A. Standard of Review

         This court's review of the ALJ's underlying decision is limited. Specifically, "[a] district court's primary function in reviewing an administrative finding of no disability is to determine whether the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence." Coffinan v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence does not require a "large or considerable amount of evidence" Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 564-65 (1988); rather, it requires "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). This is "more than a mere scintilla of evidence [and] somewhat less than a preponderance." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966).

         Where, as here, a matter has been referred to a magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), this court reviews de novo the portions of the report to which a timely objection has been made. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3) ("The district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to."); United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 673-74 (1980) (finding that de novo review of the magistrate's report and recommendation comports with due process requirements).

         In order for an objection to trigger de novo review, though, it must be made "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). See also Page v. Lee, 337 F.3d 411, 416 n.3 (4th Cir. 2003) ("[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 as to this claim."). Further, objections must respond to a specific error in the report and recommendation. See Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). General or conclusory objections, therefore, are not proper; they are in fact considered the equivalent of a waiver. Id. Likewise, an objection that merely repeats the arguments made in the briefs before the magistrate judge is a general objection and is treated as a failure to object. Moon v. BWX Techs, 742 F.Supp.2d 827, 829 (W.D. Va. 2010), aff'd, 498 F.App'x 268 (4th Cir. 2012) (citing Veney v. Astrue, 539 F.Supp.2d 841, 844-46 (W.D. Va. 2008)).

         Most of Smith's objections are sufficiently specific to trigger de novo review, and reviewing de novo, the court concludes that the magistrate judge's report and recommendation reached the proper conclusions. As to those objections that are too general to meet this standard, the court addresses them briefly and notes that, even if the court were to review them de novo, they are not meritorious.

         B. ALJ's Decision

         On November 18, 2013, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing Smith's claim, ultimately concluding that Smith was ineligible for benefits. In reaching his decision, the ALJ followed the five-step process found in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (2016). The five-step evaluation asks the following questions, in order: (1) whether the claimant is working or participating in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment of the duration required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509; (3) whether she has a type of impairment whose type, severity, and duration meets the requirements listed in the statute; (4) whether she can perform her past work, and if not, what her residual functional capacity (RFC) is; and (5) whether work exists for the RFC assessed to the claimant. 20 CF.R. § 404.1520(4)(i)-(v). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four to establish a prima facie case for disability. At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the commissioner to establish that the claimant maintains the RFC, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and impairments, to perform available alternative work in the local and national economies. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         In this case, because Smith had not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the ALJ analyzed whether Smith suffered from severe impairments and found that she suffered from the severe impairments of depression, ADFID, schizoid personality disorder, and insomnia. (ALJ Decision, Administrative Record (R.) 16, Dkt. No. 8-1.) The ALJ then found that Smith's mental impairments did not meet or medically equal any listed impairments. (Id. at 18-20.) In doing so, he considered her severe impairments as well as her moderate limitation in maintaining social functioning and moderate limitation in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace. (Id. at 18.)

         The ALJ then evaluated Smith's RFC, considering her severe impairments, noted above, and non-severe impairments of moderate limitations in social functioning and concentration, persistence, and pace. He found that her impairments "could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms" (id. at 21), consisting of difficulty dealing with others especially in large groups, difficulty concentrating, intermittent fatigue, feeling groggy, difficulty keeping focus and keeping up with the pace of prior jobs, and occasions of feeling like she will have a panic attack or that she wants to cry. (Id. at 21-22.) He then noted, however, that her "statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible (Id. at 21.) Her test results on various inventories showed no lower than low-average scores on a continuous performance test, only mild depression, and a borderline range of anxiety. (Id. at 21.) She had only infrequent and conservative medical treatment with no therapy and no medication. (Id.) Additionally, her self-reported daily activities were "not limited to the extent one would expect given her complaints of ...

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