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Griffin v. Berryhill

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

June 13, 2019

JOHN E. GRIFFIN PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GREG N. STIVERS, CHIEF JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Objection (DN 20) to the Magistrate Judge's Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Recommendation (“R&R”) determining that the Commissioner's findings were supported by substantial evidence. (DN 19). For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's Objection is OVERRULED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On November 14, 2014, Plaintiff John Griffin (“Griffin”) filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits. (Administrative R. 26, DN 10-2). Griffin alleged that he became disabled as a result of impairments to his back and knees. (Administrative R. 26). Administrative Law Judge Teresa A. Kroenecke conducted a hearing on December 7, 2016, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Administrative R. 43). Also present was Linda L. Jones, who testified as a vocational expert. (Administrative R. 43). The ALJ determined that Griffin is capable of performing his past work as an electronics technician and thus denied his claim because he does not suffer from a disability as defined in the relevant part of the Social Security Act. (Administrative R. 35-36). Griffin timely a request for the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied that request. (Administrative R. 1-5).

         Griffin filed his Complaint (DN 1) against the Commissioner on September 6, 2017, contending that the ALJ did not consider whether his Level 1 obesity is a severe impairment despite uncontradicted evidence showing that he had been obese for over 12 months. (Pl.'s Fact & Law Summ. 1-2, DN 13). Griffin argues this omission became reversible error at subsequent steps in the analysis because the ALJ failed to consider the combined effects of his Level 1 obesity on his musculoskeletal impairments in her fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh findings. (Pl.'s Fact & Law Summ. 2-11).

         In the R&R, the Magistrate Judge concluded that it was unnecessary to decide whether the ALJ erred by failing to find that Plaintiff's obesity is a severe impairment because that error alone was insufficient to reverse and remand the final decision of the Commissioner. (R&R 7). The Magistrate Judge stated that, “[g]enerally, so long as an [ALJ] finds that other impairments are severe, continues on with the sequential evaluation process, and considers all of a claimant's impairments in the remaining steps, the error is considered harmless.” (R&R 7). Regarding his failed appeal, the Magistrate Judge determined that “the Court is jurisdictionally limited to reviewing the decision of the ALJ, not the Appeals Council.” (R&R 18).

         Griffin now objects to the Magistrate Judge's conclusion that “it does not appear that evidence existed in the record regarding Plaintiff's obesity that the ALJ should have considered at steps three and four.” (Pl.'s Obj. 1, DN 20). Griffin also objects to the conclusion that he “failed to put obesity at issue in the administrative proceedings by failing to specifically list it in his application or specifically raise it at any point. (Pl.'s Obj. 1). Finally, Griffin “objects to the Court's refusal to review the Appeals Council's decision not to consider new evidence furnished post hearing.” (Pl.'s Obj. 6).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court reviews de novo the portions of the R&R to which objections have been filed, and the Court may accept, reject, modify the R&R, in whole or in part. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). While specific objections are entitled to de novo review, “poorly drafted objections, general objections, or objections that require a judge's interpretation should be afforded no effect and are insufficient to preserve the right of appeal.” Bardwell v. Colvin, No. 5:15-CV-00196-GNS-LLK, 2017 WL 5885378, at *1 (W.D. Ky. Jan. 31, 2017) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citation omitted). As the Sixth Circuit has noted, “a general objection to a [magistrate judge'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) (citation omitted).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The Social Security Act authorizes payment of Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income to persons with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. The term “disability” is defined to include an “[i]nability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve (12) months . . . . ” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Commissioner has promulgated regulations setting forth a five-step sequential evaluation process for evaluating disability claims. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The Commissioner's five steps, in summary, proceeds as follows:

(i) Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity?
(ii) Does the claimant have an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits his or her ability to ...

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