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Christy S. v. Saul

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

September 11, 2019

CHRISTY S., o/b/o A.S., a minor child, [1] Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, [2] Defendant.


          Elizabeth K. Dillon United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Christy S., on behalf of her son A.S., a minor child, brought this action for review of the final decision made by defendant, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying A.S.'s claim for social security income (SSI) 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 May 30, 2019, the magistrate judge issued his R&R, finding that substantial evidence supported the Commissioner's decision. (Dkt. No. 24.) Plaintiff filed a timely objection on June 13, 2019. (Pl.'s Obj., Dkt. No. 25.)

         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 Christy'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 2-8.)


         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). 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 “the 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. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 100 F.Supp.3d 487, 497 (E.D. Va. 2015).

         B. Christy S.'s Objections

         In her brief to the magistrate judge in support of her motion for summary judgment, Christy argued that the ALJ erred by finding that A.S's impairments do not functionally equal the listing of impairments. (Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. 9-14.)[3] More specifically, Christy argued that the ALJ's determination that A.S. has less than marked limitation in domains V (caring for self) and VI (health and physical well-being) was not supported by substantial evidence in the record. (Id.) Christy also argued that the ALJ's assessment of A.B.'s subjective allegations, and Christy's allegations on his behalf, was not supported by substantial evidence. (Id.) In many respects, Christy's objections are a restatement of her summary judgment arguments. It is not necessary for the court to address the exact same arguments raised before the magistrate judge. The court will, however, address the following objections.

         First, Christy argues that the ALJ erred by only giving some weight to the opinions of A.S.'s kindergarten teacher, Ms. Chelsea Carter. In her responses to a March 2017 Teacher Questionnaire, Ms. Carter indicated no serious problems in acquiring and using information and interacting and relating with others, and only one serious problem in attending and completing tasks. (R. 20.) She also found a couple of serious problems in moving about and manipulating objects and caring for self. (Id.) Finally, the teacher commented that A.S. often missed class due to symptoms like fever or vomiting. (Id.) The ALJ acknowledged that Ms. Carter “had the opportunity to observe the claimant in an educational setting on a regular basis. She is well qualified to comment on his learning, behavior, and interaction with students and adults at school.” (R. 21.) The ALJ discounted the weight of this evidence, however, because the Teacher Questionnaire “mostly provided numerical ratings with no explanation, ” and also because Ms. Carter “did not have the benefit of considering other relevant evidence, such as treatment records, in assessing the claimant's functional limitations.” (Id.)

         Christy asserts that these justifications are “illogical” because the regulations do not require a doctor to opine about marked limitations in order to find a marked limitation, and the Teacher's Questionnaire is an SSA form used in children's disability claims. It is the ALJ's job, however, to evaluate the evidence in the record. See Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (“Ultimately, it is the duty of the administrative law judge reviewing a case, and not the responsibility of the courts, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts in the evidence.”). Nothing required ...

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