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Biller v. Berryhill

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

September 22, 2017

JENNIFER LYNN BILLER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Elizabeth K. Dillon, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Jennifer Lynn Biller brought this action for review of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill's (the commissioner's) final decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) 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 Joel C. Hoppe 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.)

         Biller timely filed written objections, and the commissioner filed a response. (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 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 3-4, Dkt. No. 19.)

         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)).

         Biller raises two objections to the report, and, although they are the same basic arguments that she made in her brief before the magistrate judge, she points to specific parts of the report and its reasoning that she believes are incorrect. Thus, the court will apply a de novo standard of review to the issues raised in her objections.

         B. ALJ's Decision

         On November 23, 2015, ALJ Mary Peltzer entered her decision analyzing Biller's claim, ultimately concluding that Biller was ineligible for benefits. In reaching her 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). 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, Biller met the insured status requirements of the Act and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of February 15, 2011. (ALJ Decision, Administrative Record (R.) 83, Dkt. No. 9-1.) At step two, the ALJ found that Biller has the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus; spasmodic dysphonia; idiopathic ulnar neuropathy and peripheral neuropathy; adjustment disorder with depressive mood/major depressive disorder, and personality disorder. (R. 84.) At step three, the ALJ found that Biller's impairments did not meet or medically equal any listed impairments. (Id.) The ALJ specifically considered ...


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