United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION (ADOPTING REPORT AND
RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE)
E. Hudson Senior United States District Judge
MATTER is before the Court on a Report and Recommendation
("R&R," ECF No. 14) from then-United States
Magistrate Judge David Novak filed on August 20, 2019,
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The Magistrate
Judge's R&R addresses the parties' cross-motions
for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 9 and 13), which Plaintiff and
Defendant respectively filed on February 14, 2019 and April
1, 2019. Both Plaintiff and Defendant have objected to the
R&R, and both parties have responded thereto. The Court
will dispense with oral argument because the facts and legal
contentions are fully developed, and argument would not aid
this Court in its decisional process.
judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of
those portions of the report or specified proposed findings
or recommendations to which objection is made." 28
U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); see also Fed. R. Civ. P.
72(b)(3); Nichols v. Colvin, 100 F.Supp.3d 487, 497
(E.D. Va. 2015) ("[T]he objection requirement is
designed to allow the district court to 4focus on specific
issues, not the report as a whole.'" (quoting
United States v. Midgette, 478 F.3d 616, 621 (4th
Cir. 2007))). In conducting its review, this Court may
accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the
Magistrate Judge's recommended disposition of the case.
See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); Fed.R.Civ.P.
immediate case involves Plaintiffs application for Social
Security Disability Benefits under the Social Security Act
(the "Act"). In Plaintiffs application, he alleged
disability from avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder,
depression, anxiety and back pain, and simple partial
seizures. The Social Security Administration denied
Plaintiffs claim, both initially and upon reconsideration. An
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") then denied
Plaintiffs application in a written decision, finding that
Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. The ALJ
followed a five-step evaluation process, pursuant to Social
Security Administration regulations, in making the disability
determination. See Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632,
634 (4th Cir. 2015) ("[T]he ALJ asks at step one whether
the claimant has been working; at step two, whether the
claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations'
severity and duration requirements; at step three, whether
the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in
the regulations; at step four, whether the claimant can
perform her past work given the limitations caused by her
medical impairments; and at step five, whether the claimant
can perform other work."); 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4). Between steps three and four, the ALJ
assessed Plaintiffs residual functional capacity
("RFC"), which was used during the remaining steps
of the evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4), (e); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a).
on the five-step process and a vocational expert's
testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled
within the meaning of the Act, finding at step five that
Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers
in the national economy. The Appeals Counsel denied
Plaintiffs request for review, making the ALJ's decision
the final determination of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then
sought review of the ALJ's decision in this Court.
Magistrate Judge considered three challenges brought by
Plaintiff: (1) whether the ALJ allegedly erred by assigning
less-than-controlling weight to the opinions of Dr. Hadley
and Dr. May; (2) whether the ALJ allegedly erred by posing a
hypothetical to the vocational expert that did not adequately
account for Plaintiffs impairments; and (3) whether the ALJ
allegedly erred by posing a hypothetical to the vocational
expert that conflicted with the Dictionary of
Occupational Titles (DOT). The Magistrate Judge
determined, with respect to the first issue, that substantial
evidence supports the ALJ's assignment of weight to the
opinions of the two doctors. With respect to the second
issue, the Magistrate Judge found that the hypothetical posed
to the vocational expert adequately accounted for Plaintiffs
marked limitation in social functioning. Finally, with
respect to the third issue, the Magistrate Judge determined
that the ALJ failed to define "non-production oriented
work setting" in her RFC assessment, which required
remand to the ALJ, despite finding that there was no conflict
between the DOT and the limitations in the hypothetical.
the Magistrate Judge recommended to this Court, pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 405(g), that Plaintiffs Motion for Summary
Judgment be granted, that Defendant's Motion for Summary
Judgment be denied, and that the final decision of the
Commissioner be vacated and remanded. See 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g) ("The court shall have power to enter,
upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment
affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding
the cause for a rehearing.").
August 29, 2019, Defendant filed an Objection to the
Magistrate Judge's R&R (ECF No. 15). Defendant claims
that Plaintiff did not raise the argument that the ALJ erred
by failing to explain the term "non-production oriented
work setting," and thus the Magistrate Judge improperly
considered the issue in the R&R, especially because
Defendant was denied the opportunity for supplemental
briefing on that issue. Accordingly, Defendant asks this
Court to overrule the R&R, grant Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment, and affirm the final decision of the
Commissioner. In his Response (ECF No. 17), Plaintiff argues
that the R&R is in accordance with Fourth Circuit
law-precedent that was issued after the ALJ made her
determination and Plaintiff filed his Complaint with this
September 9, 2019, Plaintiff also filed an Objection to the
R&R (ECF No. 16). Plaintiff claims that the ALJ failed to
state what opinion she was referring to when she gave
"significant, but not great weight to the treating
source opinion from Dr. Hadley"and that the R&R
inadequately addresses that issue. (See R. at 18.)
Plaintiff further asserts that the R&R mischaracterizes
his argument with respect to his contention that the ALJ
failed to explain why she distinguished between Plaintiffs
ability to interact with workers and supervisors and his
ability to interact with the general public. Accordingly,
Plaintiff requests this Court to reject the R&R and
remand this case for further consideration. In response,
Defendant claims that substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's analyses and determinations on these issues, and
thus this Court should overrule Plaintiffs objections and
affirm and adopt the R&R on these points (ECF No. 18).
reviewing the decision of an ALJ, the reviewing court
"must uphold the factual findings of the [ALJ] if they
are supported by substantial evidence and were reached
through application of the correct legal standard."
Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir.
2005) (alteration in original) (quoting Mastro v.
Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001)). When
assessing "substantial evidence," the Court looks
for "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as
sufficient to support a particular conclusion," which is
more than "a mere scintilla of evidence but may be
somewhat less than a preponderance." Hays v.
Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (quoting
Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir.
1966)); see also Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct.
1148, 1154 (2019) ("Under the substantial-evidence
standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record
and asks whether it contains 'sufficien[t] evidence'
to support the agency's factual determinations."
(alteration in original) (citing Consol Edison Co. v.
NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938))).
Court cannot "reweigh conflicting evidence, make
credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for
that of the [ALJ]." Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653
(second alteration in original) (quoting Craig v.
Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)); see also
Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1156 (referring to the substantial
evidence standard as "deferential"). "A
factual finding by the ALJ is not binding [however] if it was
reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of
the law." Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517
(4th Cir. 1987).
with this standard, having reviewed the record, Plaintiffs
objections, and the Magistrate Judge's detailed R&R,
this Court finds that there is substantial evidence in the
record to support the ALJ's findings of fact and
conclusions of law as to the arguments asserted by Plaintiff,
which were properly reviewed and rejected by the Magistrate
Judge. Accordingly, Plaintiffs objections will be overruled.
respect to Defendant's objections, Defendant asserts that
the Magistrate Judge improperly considered an issue that
Plaintiff did not raise. In the R&R, the Magistrate Judge
acknowledged this concern; however, the Magistrate Judge
concluded that he could not affirm the ALJ's decision if
an error existed that prevented him from conducting
meaningful review. The Magistrate Judge determined that
remand was necessary, relying on Thomas v.
Berryhill, 916 F.3d 307 (4th Cir. 2019), and Perry
v. Berryhill, 765 Fed.Appx. Cir. 869 (4th Cir. 2019),
because the ALJ failed to adequately explain the meaning of
"non-production oriented work setting." Defendant
further asserts that the Magistrate Judge denied
Defendant's request for supplemental briefing on the
or not Defendant was denied meaningful opportunity to brief
the contested issue before the Magistrate Judge, Defendant
certainly had the opportunity to brief the issue before this
Court, which it did. Furthermore, this Court agrees with the
Magistrate Judge that, given the Court's obligation to
engage in substantial evidence review, it cannot affirm the
final decision of the Commissioner if an error exists that
prevents this Court from conducting a meaningful review of
the agency's decision. See Radford v. Colvin,734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013) ("A necessary
predicate to engaging in substantial evidence review is a
record of the basis for the ALJ's ruling.... If the
reviewing court has no way of evaluating the basis for the
ALJ's decision, then the proper course, except in rare
circumstances, is to remand to the agency for additional
investigation or explanation." (internal citations and
quotations omitted)); Perry, 765 Fed.Appx. at 871-72
("For this court to meaningfully review an ALJ's
[RFC] assessment, the ALJ must include ...