Peak v. Astrue
ORDER ADOPTING REPORT of Chief Magistrate Judge Carlson 16 , directing Clrk of Ct to enter jdgmt in favor of Peak & against Commissioner as set forth in Para 3 herein... VACATING decision of Commissioner denying Peak's disability insurance benefits & REMANDING case for assignment to new ALJ for re-eval & issuance of new decision... (See order for complete details.) Signed by Chief Judge Christopher C. Conner on 3/6/14. (ki)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
MARTIN F. PEAK,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:12-CV-1224
(Chief Judge Conner)
AND NOW, this 6th day of March, 2014, upon consideration of the report and
recommendation (Doc. 16) of Chief Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson, recommending
the court vacate the decision of the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) and remand the
above-captioned matter for further proceedings with respect to the application for
disability benefits filed by Martin F. Peak (“Peak”), wherein Judge Carlson concludes
that the ALJ’s noncompliance with the court’s prior remand order, see Peak v. Astrue,
No. 1:10-cv-889 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 24, 2011), violates the law of the case doctrine and compels
a second remand of this matter, and, after an independent review of the record, and the
court noting that both the Commissioner of Social Security1 (“Commissioner”) and Peak
have filed objections2 (Docs. 17-18) to the report, and the court finding Judge Carlson’s
analysis to be thorough, well-reasoned, and fully supported by the record, and the court
Michael J. Astrue’s term as Commissioner of Social Security expired on
January 19, 2013. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 25(d), Carolyn W.
Colvin, who succeeded Astrue and was appointed Acting Commissioner of Social
Security on February 14, 2013, is substituted as defendant in this action. See FED.
R. CIV. P. 25(d) (“An action does not abate when a public officer who is a party in an
official capacity dies, resigns, or otherwise ceases to hold office while the action is
pending. The officer’s successor is automatically substituted as a party.”).
When parties object to a magistrate judge’s report, the court performs a de
novo review of the contested portions of the report. Supinski v. United Parcel Serv.,
Civ. A. No. 06-0793, 2009 WL 113796, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 16, 2009) (citing Sample v.
Diecks, 885 F.2d 1099, 1106 n. 3 (3d Cir. 1989); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(c)). “In this
regard, Local Rule of Court 72.3 requires ‘written objections which . . . specifically
identify the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations or report to which
objection is made and the basis for those objections.’” Id. (citing Shields v. Astrue,
Civ. A. No. 07-417, 2008 WL 4186951, at *6 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 8, 2008)).
further finding the parties’ objections to be without merit,3 and fully addressed by the
magistrate judge’s report, it is hereby ORDERED that:
The report (Doc. 16) of Chief Magistrate Judge Carlson is ADOPTED.
The Clerk of Court shall enter judgment in favor of Martin F. Peak and
against the Commissioner as set forth in the following paragraph.
The decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Martin F.
Peak disability insurance benefits is VACATED and the case REMANDED
to the Commissioner for assignment to a new ALJ for reevaluation of the
evidence and issuance of a new decision with strict instructions that the
assigned ALJ shall not assign any weight to the form opinion of the state
agency disability examiner in reconsidering Peak’s application.
/S/ CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER
Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge
United States District Court
Middle District of Pennsylvania
The parties raise several objections which are squarely addressed in the
magistrate judge’s analysis. However, the court writes briefly to address the prime
point of contention between the parties. The Commissioner takes issue with Judge
Carlson’s recommended application of the law of the case doctrine, contending that
the doctrine is factually and legally inapplicable in this matter. The Commissioner
specifically contends that the case sub judice is a separate and distinct civil action
from Peak v. Astrue, No. 1:10-cv-889 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 24, 2011) and that the two are
not the “same case” as contemplated by the law of the case doctrine. (Doc. 17 at
3-8). The Commissioner also directs the court to Arroyo v. Astrue, 347 Fed. Appx.
802 (3d Cir. 2009), where the Third Circuit declined to give preclusive effect to a
district court’s remand order, noting that the order was so “exceedingly broad” in
mandating a full review of the record that the issue raised on appeal by claimant
could not have been “previously decided” by the court and thus was not the law of
the case. Id. at 804. Arroyo, however, is distinguishable: here, the court’s prior
remand order was unequivocal, prohibiting the ALJ from assigning any weight to
the form opinion of the state agency disability examiner, and there is no dispute
that the ALJ directly violated this order by affording “significant weight” to the
examiner’s opinion. Thus, the court overrules the Commissioner’s objection based
on Arroyo. In any event, the court declines the Commissioner’s invitation to engage
in academic or semantic debate as to whether, or which, preclusion doctrine might
apply to this case. The end result is the same. The ALJ directly ignored an order of
the district court, significantly undermining the court’s confidence in the ALJ’s
ultimate decision. For that reason, as fully articulated by Judge Carlson, the matter
must be remanded to the ALJ with strict admonitions not to consider, rely on, or
assign any weight to the opinion of the state agency disability examiner.
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