Stiner v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner of
MEMORANDUM OPINION: The Court has considered Plaintiffs objections and, after a full and comprehensivereview of the record, has found them without merit. Accordingly, the Court will ACCEPT andADOPT Magistrate Judge Guytons R&R (Doc. 23); Plaintiffs Objections (Doc. 24) will be OVERRULED; Plaintiffs motion for summary judgment (Doc. 13) will be GRANTED INPART and DENIED IN PART; Defendants motion for summary judgment (Doc. 21) will be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART; and Comm issioners decision denying benefitswill be REVERSED and this case will be REMANDED pursuant to Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for action consistent with the R&R. An appropriate Order will enter. Signed by District Judge Travis R McDonough on 2/23/2017. (DJH, )
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
WAYNE W. STINER,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
Case No. 3:16-cv-89
Judge Travis R. McDonough
Magistrate Judge H. Bruce Guyton
Plaintiff Wayne W. Stiner brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking
judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”)
denying him supplemental security income (“SSI”). The Court referred the matter to United
States Magistrate Judge H. Bruce Guyton, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and in accordance with
Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”).
On December 14, 2016, Magistrate Judge Guyton filed an R&R (Doc. 23) recommending that:
(1) Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 13) be granted in part and denied in part; (2)
Commissioner’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 21) be granted in part and denied in part;
and (3) the case be remanded to the Commissioner for reevaluation of Plaintiff’s level of
education pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.964. Plaintiff timely filed objections to the R&R (Doc.
24), and Defendant responded (Doc. 25). For the following reasons, the Court will ACCEPT
and ADOPT the Magistrate Judge’s R&R (Doc. 23).
Plaintiff did not object to the Magistrate Judge’s recitation of the facts, so the Court will
not recite them here. Plaintiff brought this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s
final decision denying his application for SSI benefits. In reaching the decision to deny benefits,
the Commissioner, through the ALJ, analyzed Plaintiff’s claim under the five-step sequential
evaluation process outlined in 20 C.F.R § 404.1520(a)(4) and summarized as follows:
If claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.
If claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity, his impairment must be
severe before he can be found to be disabled.
If claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity and is suffering from a
severe impairment that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous
period of at least twelve months, and his impairment meets or equals a listed
impairment, claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry.
If claimant’s impairment does not prevent him from doing his past relevant
work, he is not disabled.
Even if claimant’s impairment does prevent him from doing his past
relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that
accommodates his residual functional capacity and vocational factors (age,
education, skills, etc.), he is not disabled.
Nejat v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 359 F. App’x 574, 576 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Walters v. Comm’r
of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 529 (6th Cir. 1997)). During the evaluative process, the claimant
bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Id. However, at step five, the burden shifts
to the Commissioner to identify jobs in the economy that the claimant could perform considering
his impairments. Id.
At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
enabled him to
perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c) except that he could lift
and/or carry, including upward pulling, 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds
frequently. With normal breaks in an eight-hour day, he could sit, stand and/or
walk up to six hours each. Moreover, he could perform unlimited push/pull,
including hand/foot controls, within the exertional limitations. Additionally, the
claimant could frequently perform all postural activities and has no manipulative,
visual or communicative limitations but would need to avoid concentrated
exposure to pulmonary irritants. Mentally, the claimant is able to concentrate and
persist sufficiently to understand, remember and carry out simple, routine
repetitive tasks and instructions as well as low-level detailed ones. Lastly, he is
able to adapt to occasional changes in the workplace.
(Doc. 9, at 21.) Then, at step five, the ALJ considered Plaintiff’s level of education in attempting
to reach a determination of whether he could perform other work in the national economy given
his RFC, age, education, and other vocational factors. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. Based on
Plaintiff’s representations that he had obtained a GED, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had a
high school education level and that jobs existed in the national economy that he could perform.
(Doc. 9, at 24.)
On appeal, Plaintiff challenged the ALJ’s determination on two grounds. First, Plaintiff
asserted that the ALJ erred by concluding that he has a high school education level rather than
classifying his education level as “Limited” under 20 C.F.R. § 416.964, given the record
evidence, particularly Plaintiff’s Wide Range Achievement Test (“WRAT”) scores. (Doc. 14, at
1–7.) Upon review of this argument, the Magistrate Judge determined that, although the ALJ
had not erred in concluding that Plaintiff has a GED, the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff has a high
school education level was not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 23, at 9–10.) On that
basis, the Magistrate Judge recommended that the case be remanded to the Commissioner for
reevaluation of Plaintiff’s education level by carefully scrutinizing the parameters of 20 C.F.R. §
416.964. (Id. at 12.)
Second, Plaintiff challenged the ALJ’s RFC determination. Plaintiff argued that the
ALJ’s determination that he could lift or carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds
frequently, with unlimited pushing and pulling, lacked substantial evidence. (Doc. 14, at 7–15.)
As to this argument, the Magistrate Judge found that the ALJ’s RFC determination was
supported by substantial evidence and that Plaintiff’s arguments were without merit. (Doc. 23, at
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Court must conduct a de novo review of those portions of the R&R to which
objections are made and may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the magistrate judge’s
findings or recommendations. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). In doing so, the Court’s standard of
review is essentially the same as the magistrate judge’s—review is limited to determining if the
ALJ’s findings are supported by substantial evidence and if proper legal standards were applied.
42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Brainard v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir.
1989) (per curiam). “Substantial evidence” is “more than a mere scintilla” and means “such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). If supported by substantial evidence, the Court
must affirm the ALJ’s findings, even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite
conclusion. Jones v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 475 (6th Cir. 2003).
Although the Court is required to engage in a de novo review of specific objections, if the
objections merely restate the arguments asserted in Plaintiff’s earlier motion, which were
addressed by the Magistrate Judge’s R&R, then the Court may deem those objections waived.
See VanDiver v. Martin, 304 F. Supp. 2d 934, 937 (E.D. Mich. 2004). “A general objection, or
one that merely restates the arguments previously presented is not sufficient to alert the court to
alleged errors on the part of the magistrate judge. An ‘objection’ that does nothing more than
state a disagreement with a magistrate’s suggested resolution, or simply summarizes what has
been presented before, is not an ‘objection’ as that term is used in this context.” Id. The Sixth
Circuit has also explained that:
A general objection to the entirety of the magistrate’s report has the same effects
as would a failure to object. The district court’s attention is not focused on any
specific issues for review, thereby making 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, 509 (6th Cir. 1991).
Plaintiff raises two objections to the Magistrate Judge’s R&R. (Doc. 24.) First, Plaintiff
objects to the recommendation that the case be remanded for reevaluation of his education level.
(Id. at 1–10.) Second, Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge’s determination that substantial
evidence supports the ALJ’s RFC determination. (Id. at 11–18.)
Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) provides that district courts have the power to “enter
. . . a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Secretary, with or without
remanding the cause for a rehearing.” A district court may remand a case “after reviewing the
Commissioner’s decision and entering a judgment, if it determines that a rehearing before the
Commissioner is warranted in light of the court’s ruling.” Hollon ex rel. Hollon v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., 447 F.3d 477, 483 (6th Cir. 2006) (citing Faucher v. Sec’y. of Health & Human Servs.,
17 F.3d 171, 174 (6th Cir. 1994)). On the other hand, “[b]enefits may be awarded immediately if
all necessary factual issues have been resolved, ‘the proof of disability is strong, and opposing
evidence is lacking in substance, so that remand would merely involve the presentation of
cumulative evidence, or where the proof of disability is overwhelming.’” Gentry v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., 741 F.3d 708, 730 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Kalmbach v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 409 F.
App’x 852, 865 (6th Cir. 2011)).
Plaintiff does not object to the Magistrate Judge’s finding that the ALJ erred in evaluating
his education level but does object to the recommendation that this matter be remanded for
reevaluation. (Doc. 24, at 1, 17–18.) Plaintiff argues the action should instead be remanded for
an award of full benefits because further evaluation would “merely involve the presentation of
cumulative evidence.” (Id. (relying on Skinner v. Secretary, 902 F.2d 447, 450–51 (6th Cir.
1990).) In Skinner, the Sixth Circuit remanded and awarded full benefits after finding that the
ALJ had erroneously concluded that the claimant possessed marginal education and, thus, was
not disabled. 902 F.2d at 450. The Sixth Circuit found that a remand and award of full benefits
was appropriate because the record “provide[d] overwhelming evidence” that the claimant was
illiterate—thus, negating the ALJ’s determination. Id. The record reflected that, not only did
claimant’s WRAT results place him below a 3rd grade level, but two experts also concluded he
was illiterate. Id.
Here, however, unlike Skinner, the record does not “provide overwhelming evidence”
that claimant’s education level is limited. See id. Though the evidence may establish on remand
that Plaintiff’s education level is “limited” under 20 C.F.R. § 416.964, as the magistrate judge
pointed out, the WRAT test scores alone do not conclusively establish that finding without
further evaluation. On remand, the Commissioner must carefully scrutinize the guidance and
factors set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.964 in order to reach a conclusion as to Plaintiff’s education
level. (See Doc. 23, at 9–12.) Accordingly, the Court will OVERRULE Plaintiff’s objection
and adopt the Magistrate Judge’s R&R on this point.
Plaintiff’s second objection claims the ALJ’s RFC determination was not supported by
substantial evidence. (Doc. 24, at 10–18.) However, Plaintiff’s objection to the ALJ’s RFC
determination merely restates—often times, verbatim—the argument set forth in his motion for
summary judgment, which was fully addressed by the Magistrate Judge’s R&R. (Compare Doc.
14, at 7–15 with Doc. 23, at 12–18 and Doc. 24, at 11–18.) For instance, in re-asserting that the
ALJ erred in his consideration of Dr. Eva Misra’s examining opinion, Plaintiff has simply copied
and pasted his argument. (Compare Doc. 14, at 8 with Doc. 24, at 11.) Accordingly, the Court
will OVERRULE Plaintiff’s objections and adopt the Magistrate Judge’s R&R on this point.
The Court has considered Plaintiff’s objections and, after a full and comprehensive
review of the record, has found them without merit. Accordingly, the Court will ACCEPT and
ADOPT Magistrate Judge Guyton’s R&R (Doc. 23); Plaintiff’s Objections (Doc. 24) will be
OVERRULED; Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 13) will be GRANTED IN
PART and DENIED IN PART; Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 21) will be
GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART; and Commissioner’s decision denying benefits
will be REVERSED and this case will be REMANDED pursuant to Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g) for action consistent with the R&R.
An appropriate Order will enter.
/s/ Travis R. McDonough
TRAVIS R. MCDONOUGH
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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