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Alford v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

September 9, 2014

GWENDOLYN ALFORD, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Gwendolyn Alford ("Ms. Alford") initiated this social security appeal on August 28, 2012. (Doc. 1). This matter is before the court on the objections (Doc. 15) of Ms. Alford to Magistrate Judge John E. Ott's report and recommendation (the "R&R") (Doc. 14), [2] which proposes that the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed and that Ms. Alford's Motion To Remand (Doc. 11) (the "Motion") filed on May 8, 2014, be denied. (Doc. 14 at 1).

The parties have filed briefs relating to Ms. Alford's appeal. (Docs. 6-8). The Commissioner filed a response to the Motion on May 13, 2014. (Doc. 12).

The R&R was entered on July 25, 2014. (Doc. 14). Ms. Alford's objections were filed on August 8, 2014. (Doc. 15). This case was randomly reassigned to the undersigned judge on August 12, 2014. (Doc. 16). The Commissioner responded to Ms. Alford's objections on August 22, 2014. (Doc. 18). Finally, Ms. Alford, on August 27, 2014, followed with a reply. (Doc. 19).

The matter, therefore, is now under submission, and for the reasons explained below, the court OVERRULES Ms. Alford's objections, and ACCEPTS the R&R as minimally modified below. Consequently, the Commissioner's decision is due to be AFFIRMED, and Ms. Alford's Motion is due to be DENIED.

II. Standards

A. Social Security Appeals

The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of this court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). This court must "scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence." Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). This court will determine that the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence if it finds "such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Id. Factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence must be upheld by the court. The ALJ's legal conclusions, however, are reviewed de novo, because no presumption of validity attaches to the ALJ's determination of the proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted, the ALJ's decision must be reversed. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

B. District Court Review of Report and Recommendation

After conducting a "careful and complete" review of the findings and recommendations, a district judge may accept, reject, or modify the magistrate judge's report and recommendation. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) ("A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge."); Williams v. Wainwright, 681 F.2d 732 (11th Cir. 1982) (quoting Nettles v. Wainwright, 677 F.2d 404, 408 (5th Cir. 1982), overruled on other grounds by Douglass v. United Services Auto. Ass'n, 79 F.3d 1415 (5th Cir. 1996)).[3] The district judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

A district judge "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). This requires that the district judge "give fresh consideration to those issues to which specific objection has been made by a party." Jeffrey S. v. State Bd. of Educ., 896 F.2d 507, 512 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing H.R. Rep. No. 94-1609, 94th Cong., 2d Sess., reprinted in 1976 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News 6162, 6163). In contrast, those portions of the R&R to which no objection is made need only be reviewed for clear error. Macort v. Prem, Inc., 208 F.Appx. 781, 784 (11th Cir. 2006).[4]

"Neither the Constitution nor the statute requires a district judge to review, de novo, findings and recommendations that the parties themselves accept as correct." United States v. Woodard, 387 F.3d 1329, 1334 (11th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003)). It is incumbent upon the parties to timely raise any objections that they may have regarding a magistrate judge's findings contained in a report and recommendation, as the failure to do so subsequently waives or abandons the issue, even if such matter was presented at the magistrate judge level. See, e.g., United States v. Pilati, 627 F.3d 1360 at 1365 (11th Cir. 2010) ("While Pilati raised the issue of not being convicted of a qualifying offense before the magistrate judge, he did not raise this issue in his appeal to the district court. Thus, this argument has been waived or abandoned by his failure to raise it on appeal to the district court."). However, the district judges has discretion to consider or to decline to consider arguments that were not raised before the magistrate judge. Stephens v. Tolbert, 471 F.3d 1173, 1176 (11th Cir. 2006); see also Williams v. McNeil, 557 F.3d 1287, 1292 (11th Cir. 2009) ("Thus, we answer the question left open in Stephens and hold that a district court has discretion to decline to consider a party's argument when that argument was not first presented to the magistrate judge.").

"Parties filing objections must specifically identify those findings objected to. Frivolous, conclusive or general objections need not be considered by the district court." Nettles, 677 F.2d at 410 n.8. "This rule facilitates the opportunity for district judges to spend more time on matters actually contested and produces a result compatible with the purposes of the Magistrates Act." Id. at 410. Indeed, a contrary rule "would effectively nullify the magistrate judge's consideration of the matter and would not help to relieve the workload of the district court." Williams, 557 F.3d at 1292 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting United States v. Howell, 231 F.3d 615, 622 (9th Cir. 2000)).

III. Analysis

Ms. Alford challenges the R&R on four different grounds, which all relate to her submission of evidence to the Appeals Council (the "AC") after the ALJ had rendered his decision that was adverse to her on December 22, 2010. Therefore, Ms. Alford has waived any contention that the ALJ's determination (without factoring in her subsequently submitted evidence) was not supported by substantial evidence and, reviewing the R&R for clear error as to those portions without any objection pending, the court finds none and ACCEPTS all those parts of the R&R.

Regarding the magistrate judge's review of the AC's treatment of Ms. Alford's post-hearing decision proof, the court, after undergoing a de novo assessment, concludes that the record lacks any reversible error. ...


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