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Melanson v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Norfolk Division

August 7, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This matter is currently before the Court on Keith R. Melanson's ("Plaintiff) objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation ("R&R"). For the reasons set forth below, the R&R is ACCEPTED and ADOPTED. Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and Commissioner Andrew Saul's ("Commissioner") Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.


         The Magistrate Judge's R&R thoroughly details the factual and procedural history of the case. See ECF No. 14 at 1-7. Since 1998, Plaintiff has been treated for connective tissue disorder ("CTD") and fibromyalgia. Id. at 2, 5. Plaintiff would often visit rheumatologist Dr. Albert Lee ("Dr. Lee") to receive treatment. Id. In 2014, Plaintiff allegedly stopped working due to his condition. Id. Since then, Dr. Lee has treated Plaintiff for his conditions at least thirteen times and has evaluated him at least three times. Id. at 2-5. At all thirteen treatments, Plaintiffs lab results were normal and reported that he had no acute synovitis (swelling of connective tissue) and that he had good range of motion in his joints. See Id. At these treatments, Dr. Lee would normally provide Plaintiff with steroid injections and renew prescriptions. See Id. During at least five of these treatments, Dr. Lee noted that Plaintiff had a flare-up of fibromyalgia and had the related tender points. Id. at 3-4. As for the evaluations, Dr. Lee completed these to help Plaintiff obtain government benefits; twice to obtain food stamps and once for the administrative proceeding at issue here. Id. at 5-6.

         On May 13, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging an onset date of June 15, 2014. Id. at 1. On September 24, 2015, the Commissioner denied Plaintiffs application. ECF No. 7 at 94. Plaintiff then requested reconsideration on October 21, 2015, id at 99, which was denied on December 6, 2015. Id. at 100. On January 13, 2016, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Id. at 106. The ALJ held a hearing on September 28, 2017. See Id. at 27-71. On November 17, 2017, the ALJ denied Plaintiffs claim. Id. at 9. On January 18, 2018, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. Id. at 155. On July 17, 2018, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making that the final decision of the Commissioner. See Id. at 1.

         On September 13, 2018, Plaintiff filed the instant action for judicial review. ECF No. 1. On November 16, 2018, the Commissioner filed an answer. ECF No. 6. On December 20, 2018, Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 10. On January 18, 2019, the Commissioner filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 11-12. On February 8, 2019, Plaintiff replied. ECF NO. 13. On June 14, 2019, the Magistrate Judge issued his R&R. ECF No. 14. On June 28, 2019, Plaintiff filed his objections to the R&R. ECF No. 15. The Commissioner filed a response on July 11, 2019. ECF No. 16.


         Under Rule 72(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a district judge is required to "determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to." The de novo requirement means that a district court judge must give "fresh consideration" to the objected-to portions of the Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation. See Wilmer v. Cook, 774 F.2d 68, 73 (4th Cir. 1985); United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 675 (1980). "The district judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

         A district court must review the relevant findings by the Magistrate Judge de novo when a party objects to the Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Objections made to the report must be made "with sufficient specificity so as reasonably to alert the district court of the true ground of the objection." United States v. Midgette, 478 F.3d 616, 622 (4th Cir. 2007). Objections must also respond to specific errors in the report and recommendation because general or conclusory objections are not proper. See Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). General or conclusory objections are the equivalent of a waiver. Id. Moreover, "a mere restatement of the arguments raised in the summary judgment filings does not constitute an 'objection' for the purposes of district court review." Nichols v. Colvin, 100 F.Supp.3d 487, 497 (E.D. Va. 2015) (citing Abou-Hussein v. Mabus, No. 2:09-1998, 2010 WL 4340935, at *1 (D.S.C. Oct. 28, 2010)).


         A. Objection to Reduced Consideration of Dr. Lee's Opinion

         Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's finding that the ALJ's rejection of Dr. Lee's opinion was based on substantial evidence. ECF No. 15 at 3-4. In preparation for the September 28, 2017 hearing before the ALJ, Dr. Lee filled a form prepared by Plaintiffs counsel. ECF No. 7 at 529-43; see Id. at 31-32. The document is not an affidavit or declaration, but rather a prepared form filled with excerpts from Dr. Lee's notes on Plaintiff and snippets of statements drawn from various websites and medical journals. See Id. at 529-43. Dr. Lee simply checked boxes to indicate his assent to the statement and then signed and dated the document. See Id. Notably, the last two pages of Dr. Lee's opinion recite verbatim the requirements of Listing 14.06 and Dr. Lee has checked yes on every single affirmative response. Id. at 542-43.

         Normally, the treating physician's opinion is given controlling weight if it is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2). However, if the treating doctor's opinion is contradicted by other medical opinions in the case and by the patient's own medical records, the ALJ must determine how much weight to give such an opinion, even if it is the treating doctor. See Id. at §§ 404.1527(c)(3)-(6), 416.927(c)(3)-(6). Moreover, opinions that the patient is disabled as defined under the SSA are given no weight, as this determination is reserved to the Commissioner. Id. at §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d).

         The ALJ, as the original trier of fact, is the one who determines the sufficiency of such evidence, and the Court should leave such a determination untouched outside sufficient reasons. See Lewis v. Berryhill858 F.3d 858, 868 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting Monroe v. Colvin,826 F.3d 176, 189 (4th Cir. 2016)) ("The ALJ's failure to 'build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion' constitutes reversible error."). "Federal courts do not undertake to 're-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [their] judgment' for that of the agency." Prof Massage Training Ctr., Inc. v. Accreditation ...

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