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Sherri v. Saul

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

August 30, 2019

SHERRI H.,[1] Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration,[2] Defendant.


          Elizabeth K. Dillon, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Sherri H. brought this action for review of the final decision made by defendant, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, finding her not disabled and therefore denying her claim for supplemental security income (SSI) and disability insurance benefits (DIB) under the Social Security Act. Both parties moved for summary judgment, and pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), the court referred the motion to U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou for a report and recommendation (R&R). On February 1, 2019, the magistrate judge issued his R&R, finding that substantial evidence supported the Commissioner’s decision. (R&R, Dkt. No. 21.) Sherri filed a timely objection on February 15, 2019. (Pl. Obj., Dkt. No. 22.)

         After de novo review of the pertinent portions of the record, the report, and the filings by the parties, in conjunction with the applicable law, the court agrees with the magistrate judge’s recommendation. Accordingly, the court will grant the Commissioner’s motion for summary judgment, deny Sherri’s motion for summary judgment, and affirm the Commissioner’s decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The court adopts the recitation of facts and procedural background as set forth in the report. (R&R 2–6.)


         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) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). 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).

         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). 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). As other courts have recognized in the social security context, “[t]he Court may reject perfunctory or rehashed objections to R&Rs that amount to a second opportunity to present the arguments already considered by the Magistrate Judge.” Heffner v. Berryhill, No. 2:16-cv-820, 2017 WL 3887155, at *3 (D.S.C. Sept. 6, 2017) (quoting Felton v. Colvin, No. 2:12-cv-558, 2014 WL 315773, at *7 (E.D. Va. Jan. 28, 2014)). Because “[t]he purpose of magistrate review is to conserve judicial resources,” 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).

         B. Sherri H.’s Objections

         In her brief to the magistrate judge in support of summary judgment, Sherri argued that the ALJ failed to: (1) address her moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace or moderate limitations in social functioning in assessing her residual functional capacity (RFC) to provide a proper hypothetical to the vocational expert; (2) consider her impairments on a function-by-function basis to determine how they affect her ability to work; and (3) provide sufficient reasons for rejecting the plaintiff’s allegations regarding her subjective complaints. (Mot. Summ. J. 23–39, Dkt. No. 15.) Sherri’s objections to the magistrate judge’s recommendation largely reiterate those arguments. (See, e.g., Pl. Obj. 1–2 (“The Report and Recommendation erred in concluding the ALJ’s discussion of plaintiff’s mental limitations satisfies the requirements of SSR 96-8p. . . . The ALJ does not explain how these limitations noted by the state agency physicians are addressed in the ALJ’s RFC findings.”); id. at 7 (“[T]he Report and Recommendation erred in concluding the ALJ’s RFC findings are sufficient under SSR 96-8p.”); id. at 9 (“[T]he Report and Recommendation erred in concluding the ALJ supported his analysis of plaintiff’s subjective complaints with substantial evidence . . . .”).) Sherri’s objections are mostly a condensed version of her summary judgment brief, and the court will not address arguments that were thoroughly explored by the magistrate judge. Moreover, even if the court were to consider the objections de novo, it would conclude that the magistrate judge’s reasoning is correct and the ALJ’s determination is supported by substantial evidence.

         1. RFC mental limitations

          In her first objection, Sherri argues that the ALJ did not adequately address her mental limitations in the RFC findings.[3] She further argues that the R&R failed to address Sherri’s argument that “the ALJ failed to build a logical bridge between the evidence and his ultimate RFC findings.” (Id. at 1–3.) In particular, Sherri points to the ALJ’s finding that she can engage in work as a “marker, clothing bagger, and routing clerk” despite also finding that “plaintiff is able to respond appropriately to the public and co-workers no more than one-third of the work day.” (Id. at 3.) She reasons that the ALJ’s finding resulted in deficient hypothetical questions posed to the vocational expert in her case, as they do not account for her ability to sustain work over the course of an ...

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