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Hudgins v. Berryhill

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

March 26, 2018

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 February 12, 2018, 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 Matthew James Hudgins has filed objections to the report, and this matter is now ripe for the court's consideration.


         The objection requirement set forth in Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is designed to "train[ ] the attention of both the district court and the court of appeals upon only those issues that remain in dispute after the magistrate judge has made findings and recommendations." United States v. Midgette, 478 F.3d 616, 621 (4th Cir. 2007) (citing Thomas v. Am. 474 U.S. 140, 147-48 (1985)). An objecting party must do so "with sufficient specificity so as reasonably to alert the district court of the true ground for the objection." Id. at 622.

To conclude otherwise would defeat the purpose of requiring objections. We would be permitting a party to appeal any issue that was before die 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.


         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).

         It is not the province of a federal court to make administrative disability decisions. Rather, judicial review of disability cases is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's conclusion that the plaintiff failed to meet his burden of proving disability. See Hays v. Sullivan. 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). In so doing, the court may neither undertake a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision nor re-weigh the evidence of record. Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992). Evidence is substantial when, considering the record as a whole, it might be deemed adequate to support a conclusion by a reasonable mind, Richardson v. Perales. 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), or when it would be sufficient to refuse a directed verdict in a jury trial. Smidi v. Chater. 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4di Cir. 1996). Substantial evidence is not a "large or considerable amount of evidence, " Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), but is more than a mere scintilla and somewhat less than a preponderance. Perales. 402 U.S. at 401; Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be affirmed. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Perales, 402 U.S. at 401.


         Hudgins objects to die magistrate judge's determination that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) reasonably accounted for Hudgins's moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, and pace in his residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment. Hudgins specifically takes issue with the magistrate judge's reliance on his ability to work in various jobs in high school and on the opinion of consultative examiner Mark Pere2-Lope2, Ph.D., in finding substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision in this case. The court cannot agree.

         As the magistrate judge correctly noted, there is limited evidence in the record concerning Hudgins's mental impairments during die relevant period. Hudgins was treated for depression and anxiety with medication by his primary care physician, David Hudgins, M.D. (no relation). But Dr. Hudgins's records all reflect normal mental status exams- mood, memory, affect and judgment were all noted to be normal, and there was no evidence in Dr. Hudgins's records of any functional limitations stemming from his mental impairments. Indeed, only a few records even mention Hudgins's complaints of any mental impairments.

         Hudgins was hospitalized at one point in April 2015 after presenting to the emergency department reporting "everybody thinks I am suicidal." (R. 571.) This followed an incident in which his family wanted to go to the store; Hudgins became aggravated in the car and opened the door to jump out, but eventually closed it. (R. 571.) Upon examination, the emergency room doctor noted he was alert, oriented, in no acute distress, had normal speech, no motor or sensory deficits, normal affect, normal cognitive function, normal judgment/insight, and normal thought processes. (R. 574.) He was transferred from the emergency department to Lewis Gale Pavilion, where his psychological examination was within normal limits. (R. 580.)

         Julia Ewen, M.D., performed a consultative examination of Hudgins in 2013, during the relevant period. Her report reveals he was alert and oriented and able to comprehend normal conversational speech. He had difficulty answering questions but was easy to understand. His mood and affect were normal and his thought processes linear. Dr. Ewen noted he had a poor fund of knowledge but normal memory and concentration. (R. 858.) As far as functional limitations, Dr. Ewen found Hudgins had "pronounced communicative limitations as he has difficulty answering questions, has difficulty relating his history due to his learning disability." (R. 860.)

         In light of the dearth of evidence concerning Hudgins's mental impairments during the relevant period, the ALJ examined evidence prior to Hudgins's alleged July 3, 2012 onset date-specifically, his school records dating nearly a decade earlier, which document borderline intellectual functioning and a need for special education services. These school records reveal Hudgins's difficulties with attention and staying on task in terms of completing ...

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