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Kane v. Saul

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

January 10, 2020

AEDEN KANE, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION (ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE)

          Henry E. Hudson Senior United States District Judge

         THIS 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.

         "A 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. 72(b)(3).

         The 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).

         Based 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.

         The 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.

         Accordingly, 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.").

         On 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 Court.[2]

         On 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"[3]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).

         When 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))).

         The 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).

         In line 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.

         With 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 issue.

         Whether 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 ...


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