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Isner v. Berryhill

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

September 21, 2017

WHITNEY RENEE ISNER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ELIZABETH K. DILLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Whitney Renee Isner brought this action for review of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill's (the commissioner's) final decision denying her claim 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. 28.) Isner timely objected. (Dkt. No. 29.) 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 2-4, Dkt. No. 28.)

         II. DISCUSSION

         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, 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)).

         Isner raises three objections to the report, and they all concern issues raised in her brief before the magistrate judge. But Isner also cites to specific portions of the record that she believes refute the report's conclusions, and she specifically addresses statements in the report that she believes were erroneous. Thus, the court will address her objections and apply a de novo standard of review.

         B. ALJ's Decision

         On August 8, 2014, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing Isner's claim, ultimately concluding that Isner was ineligible for benefits.[1] In reaching his decision, the ALJ followed the five-step process found in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (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. § 416.909; (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. § 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, the ALJ determined that Isner had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 7, 2010, the application date. (ALJ Decision, Administrative Record (R.) 23, Dkt. No. 12-1.) At step two, the ALJ found that Isner suffered from the severe impairments of major depressive disorder, polysubstance dependence, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, asthma, lumbago, and cervicalgia. (Id.) The ALJ further found that certain of Isner's impairments, including her substance abuse disorders, met listings 12.04 (affective disorders) and 12.09 (substance abuse disorders). (Id. at 24.) Nevertheless, the ALJ found that if Isner stopped abusing substances, her impairments would no longer meet or medically equal a listed impairment. (Id. at 26.)

         The ALJ then evaluated Isner's RFC, determining that if Isner stopped abusing substances, she would retain the RFC to perform light work and simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a low-stress job with only occasional decision-making, changes in work setting, judgment, and interaction with the public or co-workers. (Id. at 27-28.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Isner was not eligible for benefits. (Id. at 140.) ...


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