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Amy R. v. Saul

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

September 9, 2019

AMY R., Plaintiff
ANDREW SAUL, 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 (R&R) on May 24, 2019, recommending that the 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 Amy R. ("Amy") has filed objections to the report and this matter is now ripe for the court's consideration.

         I. Standard of Review of Magistrate Judge Decision

         The objection requirement set forth in Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure[1] 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 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.


         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*l (W.D. N.C. 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. 2009), aff'd, 373 Fed.Appx. 346 (4th Cir. 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 Fed.Appx. 268 (4th Cir. 2012). See also Arn, 474 U.S. at 154 ("[T]he statute does not require the judge to review an issue de novo if no objections are filed. . . .").

         Rehashing arguments raised before the magistrate judge does not comply with the requirement set forth in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to file specific objections. Indeed, 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. Astrue, 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 her 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, ] 0 509 [(6th Cir. 1991)].

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

         II. Judicial Review of Social Security Determinations

         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. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th 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.

         III. Plaintiffs Objections[2]

         In her objections to the R&R, Amy asserts that the magistrate judge erred when he made the following findings: (1) that substantial evidence supported the administrative law judge's ("ALJ") assessment of Amy's physical residual functional capacity ("RFC"); (2) that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's assessment of Amy's mental RFC; (3) that the ALJ properly assessed her subjective allegations of impairment; and (4) that the Appeals Council properly concluded that new evidence she submitted did not warrant remand.

         A. Physical RFC Assessment

         Amy suffers from several physical and mental impairments. The ALJ found that her severe impairments include obesity, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); restrictive lung disease; obstructive sleep apnea, trigeminal neuralgia, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, attention deficit disorder, and diabetes mellitus.

         When assessing a claimant's RFC, an ALJ should follow the process described in Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176 (4th Cir. 2016).

The process for assessing RFC is set out in Social Security Ruling 96-8p. See [Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015)]. Under that ruling, the "'assessment must first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis, including the functions' listed in the regulations." Id. (quoting SSR 96-8P, 61 Fed. Reg. at 34, 475). Only after such a function-by-function analysis may an ALJ express RFC "'in terms of the exertional levels of work.'" Id. (quoting SSR 96-8P, 61 Fed. Reg. at 34, 475). We have explained that expressing RFC before analyzing the claimant's limitations function by function creates the danger that "'the adjudicator [will] overlook limitations or restrictions that would narrow the ranges and types of work an individual may be able to do.'" Id. at 636 (quoting SSR 96-8p, 61 Fed. Reg. at 34, 476).

Monroe, 826 F.3d at 187-188. In addition, the ALJ's assessment must include a narrative discussion of how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing medical facts and nonmedical evidence, and '"must build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion."' Id. at 189 (quoting Clifford v. Apfel., 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000)).[3]

         Regarding Amy's physical RFC, the ALJ found that she could perform light work except that she could only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, kneel, crawl, stoop, and crouch, would need to avoid even moderate exposure to extreme temperatures, excess humidity, and pulmonary irritants; would need to avoid all exposure to hazardous machinery, unprotected heights, and working on vibrating surfaces, and could never climb ladders, ropes, or ...

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