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Taylor v. Berryhill

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

March 16, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.


          Elizabeth K. Dillon United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Melissa A. Taylor brought this action for review of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill's (the commissioner's) final decision denying her claims for supplemental security income (SSI) and disability insurance benefits (DIB) under the Social Security Act (the Act). 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. 19.) Taylor timely objected, and the commissioner filed a response to the objections. (Dkt. Nos. 20, 21.) 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 plaintiff's 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. (Report 2-6, Dkt. No. 19.)


         A. Standard of Review

         This court's review of the administrative law judge's (ALJ) 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.” Coffman 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) (“[P]etitioner'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)).

         Taylor raises three objections to the report, and, to a significant degree, they repeat arguments that she made in her brief before the magistrate judge. But she cites to specific portions of the record that she believes refute the report's conclusions, and she specifically addresses statements in the report. Thus, the court will address the objections and apply a de novo standard of review.

         B. ALJ's Decision

         On March 27, 2014, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing Taylor's claim, ultimately concluding that Taylor 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 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). 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, Taylor was not working at the time she applied for benefits or afterward. At step two, the ALJ found that Taylor suffered from the severe impairments of mood disorder/bipolar disorder, anxiety, history of substance use disorder, obesity, asthma/COPD, degenerative disc disease, and knee arthralgia. (ALJ Decision, Administrative Record (R.) 131, Dkt. No. 9-1.) He also considered and rejected her contention that her problems with her right shoulder constituted a severe impairment. (Id.) The ALJ then found that Taylor's impairments did not meet or medically equal any listed impairments. (Id.) In doing so, he considered her severe impairments as well as her moderate limitation in social functioning, mild restriction in activities of daily living, and mild to moderate limitation in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace. (Id. at 132.)

         The ALJ then evaluated Taylor's RFC, considering all of her impairments. He concluded that she had the RFC to perform light work except that she should never be exposed to hazards or kneeling. She could occasionally operate foot controls, climb, balance, stoop, crouch, and crawl, and should have no more than occasional exposure to extreme cold, wetness, and pulmonary irritants. He also limited her to simple unskilled work with no interaction with the public, and only occasional and superficial interaction with coworkers and supervisors. (Id. at 133.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined that Taylor is capable of performing past relevant work as a dietary aide, as actually performed at the unskilled light level of exertion. (Id. at 138.) The ALJ also made the alternative finding for step five that Taylor is also capable of performing other jobs that exist in the national economy at the unskilled light level of exertion, such as assembler, mail routing clerk, and ...

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