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O'Brien v. Colvin

United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

September 16, 2014

SHAWN O’BRIEN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


Ronald L. Buckwalter, S.J.

Currently pending before the Court are Plaintiff Shawn O’Brien’s Objections to the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski. For the following reasons, the Objections are denied.


On July 27, 2010, Plaintiff Shawn O’Brien, then thirty-three years old, filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. (R. 123–24.)[1] His claim alleged disability since November 4, 2008, due to degenerative joint disease of the left shoulder and left shoulder pain. (Id. at 135, 167, 216–17.) The state agency denied Plaintiff’s application on November 1, 2010. (Id. at 70–81.) Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 82–83.) Following the hearing—at which Plaintiff, his wife, and a vocational expert testified—ALJ Jennifer Lash issued a decision, dated July 22, 2011, deeming Plaintiff “not disabled.” (Id. at 15–23, 27–65.) Plaintiff then filed an appeal and supporting brief. (R. 9–11.) On October 5, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, (id. at 1–3), making the ALJ’s ruling the final decision of the agency. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.972.

Plaintiff initiated the present civil action in this Court on November 30, 2012. His Request for Review set forth four alleged errors as follows: (1) the ALJ failed to give proper weight to statements from Plaintiff’s treating physician; (2) the ALJ failed to give proper weight to Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien’s testimony; (3) the ALJ improperly found that Plaintiff does not meet or equal Listing 1.02; (4) the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff can engage in substantial gainful employment is not supported by substantial evidence. On June 13, 2014, United States Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) recommending that Plaintiff’s Request for Review be denied and that judgment be entered in favor of Defendant.

Plaintiff filed Objections to the R&R on June 25, 2014, asserting that: (1) the ALJ failed to assign proper weight to the treating physician’s statements; (2) the ALJ’s credibility determination is inconsistent with the evidence of record; (3) the ALJ erred by substituting the treating physician’s judgment with her own judgment as to whether Plaintiff meets or equals Listing 1.02; and (4) the ALJ erred by basing her decision as to past relevant work on defective hypothetical questions that did not accurately reflect Plaintiff’s actual conditions. Defendant submitted a Response to the Objections on July 3, 2014, making this matter ripe for judicial review.


A. Standard for Judicial Review of an ALJ’s Decision

It is well-established that judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to determining whether “substantial evidence” supports the decision. Burnett v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 118 (3d Cir. 2000). “Substantial evidence ‘does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999) (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 564–65 (1988)). When making this determination, a reviewing court may not undertake a de novo review of the Commissioner’s decision and may not re-weigh the evidence of record. Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3d Cir. 1986). In other words, even if the reviewing court, acting de novo, would have decided the case differently, the Commissioner’s decision must be affirmed when supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 1190–91; see also Gilmore v. Barnhart, 356 F.Supp.2d 509, 511 (E.D. Pa. 2005) (holding that the court’s scope of review is “‘limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner’s findings of fact’”) (quoting Schwartz v. Halter, 134 F.Supp.2d 640, 647 (E.D. Pa. 2001)).

B. Standard of Review of Objections to a Report and Recommendation

Where a party makes a timely and specific objection to a portion of a report and recommendation by a United States Magistrate Judge, the district court is obliged to engage in de novo review of only those issues raised on objection. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Sample v. Diecks, 885 F.2d 1099, 1106 n.3 (3d Cir. 1989). In so doing, a court may “accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings and recommendations” contained in the report. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The court may also, in the exercise of sound judicial discretion, rely on the Magistrate Judge’s proposed findings and recommendations. See United v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980).


A. Duplicative Objections

The substance of Plaintiff’s four Objections present the identical four issues raised in the Request for Review. To the extent Plaintiff makes arguments duplicative of those presented to the Magistrate Judge, the Court deems them improper under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and declines to review them.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72 provides that a party may serve and file “specific written objections to the proposed findings and recommendations.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72. Local Rule of Civil Procedure 72.1 goes on to indicate that such written objections “shall specifically identify the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations or report to which objection is made and the basis for such objections.” E.D. Pa. R. 72.1(IV)(b). In other words, an objecting party must identify specific errors in the magistrate judge’s analysis without simply rehashing arguments already raised to the magistrate judge. As succinctly explained by one federal district court:

If the magistrate system is to be effective, and if profligate wasting of judicial resources is to be avoided, the district court should be spared the chore of traversing ground already plowed by the magistrate except in those areas where counsel, consistent with the [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure], can in good conscience complain to the district judge that an objection to a particular finding or recommendation is “well grounded in fact and is warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification or reversal of existing law . . ...

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