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Ells v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division

March 27, 2018




         William R. Ells brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision to deny his application for supplemental security income. The Court referred this matter to a Magistrate Judge, who filed a Report and Recommendation in which he recommended that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision and dismiss Ells's complaint. [DN 16.] As is his right, Ells filed an objection to the Magistrate Judge's report. [DN 17]. Having reviewed the Administrative Record, the parties' submissions, and the applicable law, the Court will OVERRULE Ells's objection and ADOPT the Magistrate Judge's recommendation that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. The Court will enter a separate Order and Judgment consistent with this Memorandum Opinion.


         Ells filed his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits on May 22, 2013 “alleg[ing] disability due to a herniated lumbar disc at ¶ 4-5 with degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis of both knees, mild mental retardation and an affective/mood disorder.” [DN 12 at 2 (Ells's Fact and Law Summary).] After his application was denied and denied again on reconsideration, Ells “requested a hearing that was held on April 9, 2015 before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Candace A. McDaniel.” [Id.] The ALJ rendered her decision on July 29, 2015, in which she denied Ells's claim for SSI benefits. [Id.] The Appeals Council denied Ells's request for review of the ALJ's decision. [Id.] Thereafter, Ells filed suit in this Court to obtain judicial review of the denial of SSI benefits. As the Magistrate Judge explained in his report, Ells argues in this suit that the ALJ made three errors: “First, he argues that the ALJ mistakenly concluded that he did not meet Listing 12.05C for an intellectual disability.” [DN 16 at 5.] Next, Ells “claims that the ALJ erred in her RFC analysis when she determined that he was capable of performing light work.” [Id.] Finally, “Ells argues that he was denied due process at his administrative hearing when the ALJ allegedly failed to inform him of his right to counsel and the benefits having counsel would have.” [Id.]


         It is well-settled that the Court reviews the objected-to portions of a report and recommendation de novo. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). Its review of the Commissioner's determination is, of course, more deferential. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009). The scope of that inquiry is limited to (1) “whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence” and (2) “whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.” Miller v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 811 F.3d 825, 833 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting Blakley, 581 F.3d at 405-06). “Substantial evidence” means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lindsley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 560 F.3d 601, 604 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Even if supported by substantial evidence, however, “a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the [Social Security Administration] fails to follow its own regulations and where that error prejudices a claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a substantial right.” Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007)).


         In his Report and Recommendation, the Magistrate Judge rejected all three of Ells's arguments as to why the ALJ erred below. [See DN 16.] In his objection, with regard to his first two arguments, Ells states that he “objects to the Magistrate's findings in regard to [his] two initial arguments, for the reasons stated in his Fact and Law Summary and will not repeat here.” [DN 17 at 1.] These are not proper objections, however. The Sixth Circuit has made clear that “a general objection to a magistrate's report, which fails to specify the issues of contention, does not satisfy the requirement that an objection be filed. The objections must be clear enough to enable the district court to discern those issues that are dispositive and contentious.” Miller v. Currie, 50 F.3d 373, 380 (6th Cir. 1995) (citing Howard v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 932 F.2d 505, 508 (6th Cir. 1991)); see also United States v. Gwathney-Law, No. 1:15-CR-00030-GNS, 2017 WL 1128643, at *1 (W.D. Ky. Mar. 24, 2017) (“[Defendant]'s general objection is the same as no objection.”).

         This is because the objecting party has a “duty to pinpoint those portions of the magistrate's report that the district court must specially consider.” Mira v. Marshall, 806 F.2d 636, 637 (6th Cir. 1986) (citing Nettles v. Wainwright, 677 F.2d 404, 410 (5th Cir. 1982)). In the same vein, an “objection . . . that merely reiterates arguments previously presented, does not adequately identify alleged errors on the part of the magistrate judge.” Altyg v. Berryhill, No. 16-11736, 2017 WL 4296604, at *1 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 28, 2017). Therefore, Ells's general objection and reference back to the arguments already made in his Fact and Law Summary are insufficient to qualify as an objection. Therefore, the Court will not conduct a de novo review of the Magistrate Judge's report with regard to Ells's first two arguments.

         However, Ells does make a proper objection with regard to the Magistrate Judge's rejection of his third argument, that Ells's “lack of representation at his hearing denied him due process.” [DN 17 at 1-5.] Therefore, the Court will review this objection to the Magistrate Judge's report using a de novo standard.

         “When a claimant is not represented by counsel, an administrative law judge has a special duty to ensure that the record is fully and fairly developed.” Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 97 F. App'x 539, 542 (6th Cir. 2004) (citing Duncan v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 801 F.2d 847, 856 (6th Cir. 1986)). “Part of the administrative law judge's duty in this regard is to ensure that the claimant is aware of his or her right to legal representation.” Id. (citing Robinson v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 733 F.2d 255, 257 (2d Cir. 1984)).

         The Magistrate Judge found that Ells voluntarily waived his right to representation, that he was not unable to effectively present his case, and that there was no evidence to suggest that Ells did not understand the nature of the hearing or could not participate effectively. [DN 16 at 13-14.] In his objection, Ells argues that both the Commissioner and the Magistrate Judge made certain “assertions in regard to this argument . . . [that] are not only unreasonable, but seem to be based on pure speculation.” [DN 17 at 2.] First, Ells contends that the Magistrate Judge made unwarranted factual inferences about the exchange between Ells and the ALJ at the hearing. That exchange went as follows:

ALJ: So, we're here today, okay. Now, currently, you do not have a ...

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