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Stamback v. Berryhill

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

September 28, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Michael F. Urbanski Chief United States District Judge

         This social security disability appeal was referred to the Honorable Robert S. Ballou, United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), for proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition. The magistrate judge filed a report and recommendation on June 15, 2017, recommending that plaintiffs motion for summary judgment be denied, the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment be granted and the Commissioner's final decision be affirmed. Plaintiff Rodney L. Stamback has filed objections to the report, the Commissioner has responded, and this matter is now ripe for the court's consideration.


         Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a party to "serve and file specific, written objections" to a magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations within fourteen days of being served with a copy of the report. See also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The Fourth Circuit has held that an objecting party must do so "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 Or.), cert denied, 127 S.Ct. 3032 (2007).

To conclude otherwise would defeat the purpose of requiring objections. We would be permitting a party to appeal any issue that was before the magistrate judge, regardless of the nature and scope of objections made to the magistrate judge's report. Either the district court would then have to review every issue in the magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations or courts of appeals would be required to review issues that the district court never considered. In either case, judicial resources would be wasted and the district court's effectiveness based on help from magistrate judges would be undermined.

         Id. The district court must determine de novo any portion of the magistrate judge's report and recommendation to which a proper objection has been made. "The district court may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); accord 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         If, however, a party '"makes general or conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations, '" de novo review is not required. Diprospero v. Colvin, No. 5:13-cv-00088-FDW-DSC, 2014 WL 1669806, at *1 (W.D. N.C. Apr. 28, 2014) (quoting Howard Yellow Cabs. Inc. v. United States. 987 F.Supp. 469, 474 (W.D. N.C. 1997) (quoting Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982))). "The court will not consider those objections by the plaintiff that are merely conclusory or attempt to object to the entirety of the Report, without focusing the court's attention on specific errors therein." Camper v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, No. 4:08cv69, 2009 WL 9044111, at *2 (E.D. Va. May 6, 2009), affd. 373 F.App'x 346 (4th Cir.), cert denied. 131 S.Ct. 610 (2010); see. Midgette. 478 F.3d at 621 ("Section 636(b)(1) does not countenance a form of generalized objection to cover all issues addressed by the magistrate judge; it contemplates that a party's objection to a magistrate judge's report be specific and particularized, as the statute directs the district court to review only 'those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.'"). Such general objections "have the same effect as a failure to object, or as a waiver of such objection." Moon v. BWX Technologies, 742 F.Supp.2d 827, 829 (W.D. Va. 2010), affd. 498 F.App'x 268 (4th Cir. 2012); see also Thomas v. Am. 474 U.S. 140, 154 (1985) ("[T]he statute does not require the judge to review an issue de novo if no objections are filed").

         Additionally, objections that simply reiterate arguments raised before the magistrate judge are considered to be general objections to the entirety of the report and recommendation. See Veney v. As true. 539 F.Supp.2d 841, 844-45 (W.D. Va. 2008). As the court noted in Veney:

Allowing a litigant to. obtain de novo review of [his] entire case by merely reformatting an earlier brief as an objection "mak[es] the initial reference to the magistrate useless. The functions of the district court are effectively duplicated as both the magistrate and the district court perform identical tasks. This duplication of time and effort wastes judicial resources rather than saving them, and runs, contrary to the purposes of the Magistrates Act." Howard [v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.]. 932 F.2d [505, ] [] 509 [(6th Cir. 1991)].

539 F.Supp.2d at 846. A plaintiff who reiterates his previously-raised arguments will not be given "the second bite at the apple []he seeks;" instead, his re-filed brief will be treated as a general objection, which has the same effect as would a failure to object. Id.


         This case involves a closed period of disability. Stamback filed for disability insurance benefits (DIB) on June 4, 2009 alleging disability beginning April 15, 2003. He was insured through December 31, 2008. Thus, he must establish disability on or before that date in order to be entitled to DIB.

         Stamback's DIB claim was denied in a written decision issued by the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on July 14, 2011. (Administrative Record, hereinafter "R." at 19-27.) The ALJ determined Stamback had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a limited range of light work (R. 23), and found at step five of the sequential evaluation process that Stamback could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy (R. 26); therefore, he was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied review (R. 1-4), and Stamback appealed. On the motion of the Commissioner, the case was remanded for further administrative proceedings. (R. 2047, 2051.)

         In the meantime, Stamback filed an application for supplemental security income (SSI) on July 25, 2011, which was approved. State agency physician Bert Spetzler, M.D., determined that Stamback had the RFC to perform only sedentary work and, given his age, education and lack of transferable skills, the medical-vocational rules directed a finding of disability. Stamback was therefore entitled to SSI benefits beginning July 25, 2011.

         Following remand, the ALJ held two administrative hearings on Stamback's DIB claim (R. 1986-2023, 2024-46), and enlisted the assistance of Dr. Leonard Rubin in conducting an independent review of the medical evidence in this case and opining as to Stamback's RFC (R. 2225-37). In a decision issued on October 19, 2015, the ALJ denied Stamback's DIB claim for benefits, again finding Stamback had the RFC to perform a limited range of light work during the relevant period, and determining at step five that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Stamback could perform. (R. 1963-78.) The Appeals Council denied Stamback's request for review, and this appeal followed.

         In a lengthy summary judgment brief, Stamback raised six arguments[2] before the magistrate judge in support of his contention that the ALJ's decision to deny his DIB claim is not supported by substantial evidence. Stamback's objections to the magistrate judge's report and recommendation mirror those six summary judgment arguments. Compare Pl.'s Obj., ECF No. 24 with Pl.'s Summ. J. Br., ECF No. 15. On the whole, Stamback's objections are general objections to the magistrate judge's conclusions; he seeks review of his entire case, rather than points to specific errors in the magistrate judge's analysis. This defeats the entire purpose of magistrate judge review. See Midgette, 478 F.3d at 621-22; see also Howard v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.. 932 F.2d 505');">932 F.2d 505, 509 (6th Cir. 1991).


         For instance, on summary judgment, Stamback argued the ALJ erred in failing to give greater weight to the opinions of his treating cardiologist, Dr. McLuckie, and primary care physician, Dr. Watts, as to Stamback's RFC. After considering these arguments, the magistrate judge held that the ALJ appropriately considered the factors set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(5) and adequately explained his reasons for giving these opinions little weight. The magistrate judge determined that substantial evidence in the record supports the ALJ's decision in that regard. Report & Recommendation, ECF No. 23, at 9-11. In his objections, Stamback argues this conclusion is erroneous for a number of reasons, all of which he previously argued in his summary judgment brief:

• The ALJ erroneously stated that Stamback's treatment with Dr. McLuckie ended "long" before Dr. McLuckie completed his cardiac RFC form in May 2011, as Stamback had treated with another doctor in the same practice, Dr. Rutherford, in December 2010. Compare Pl.'s Obj., ECF ...

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