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McGuire v. Berryhill

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

September 21, 2017

TIMOTHY PAUL MCGUIRE, [1]Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ELIZABETH K. DILLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Timothy Paul McGuire brought this action for review of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill's (the commissioner's) final decision denying his claim for 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. 16.) McGuire objected, and the commissioner filed a response to the objections. (Dkt. Nos. 17, 18.) 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 will adopt 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 2-3, Dkt. No. 16.)

         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)).

         McGuire's two objections were both issues raised in his brief before the magistrate judge, but he offers sufficiently specific objections to the report itself to trigger the de novo standard of review. Accordingly, the court reviews de novo those portions of the report to which McGuire has objected.

         B. ALJ's Decision

         McGuire had previously applied for social security benefits and was awarded benefits for a closed period of disability, from October 16, 2009, through December 31, 2010. The ALJ's decision in the prior case was dated June 4, 2012, and concluded that McGuire was disabled for the closed period “due to degenerative disc disease and arthralgias status-post October 2009 motor vehicle accident, residual effects of shotgun injuries, and anxiety.” (ALJ Decision, Administrative Record (R.) 56, Dkt. No. 8-1 (describing prior decision); see also R. 133-140 (prior ALJ decision).) Approximately three months before that first decision, in March 2012, McGuire was injured in an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) accident. Those injuries gave rise to the disability claim at issue here.

         On May 5, 2015, the ALJ entered the decision that McGuire challenges in this case, concluding that McGuire 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 he has a type of impairment whose type, severity, and duration meets the requirements listed in the statute; (4) whether he can perform his past work, and if not, what his 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). 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).

         McGuire protectively filed for a period of disability and DIB on July 6, 2012, alleging disability beginning March 10, 2012. (R. 43.) At step one, the ALJ concluded that McGuire had not worked since March 10, 2012, and met the insured status requirements of the Act through March 31, 2016. At step two, the ALJ found that McGuire suffered from the severe impairments of “degenerative disc disease, status-post scapula, and rib fractures, March 2012; history of shotgun injury; hypertension; right hip arthralgia; depression; anxiety. (Id. at 45.) At step three, the ALJ found that McGuire's impairments, alone or in combination, neither met nor medically equaled any listed impairments. ...


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