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Dunavan v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

March 23, 2017

BRIAN K. DUNAVAN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER SUSTAINING DEFENDANT'S OBJECTIONS [20], REJECTING THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION [19], GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [15], DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [10], AND AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          Nancy G. Edmunds United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Brian Dunavan seeks judicial review of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security's determination that he is not entitled to social security benefits. The Court referred the matter to Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Stafford, and, on February 14, 2017, she issued a Report and Recommendation (R&R) finding that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. As a result, the R&R recommends granting Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, denying Defendant's motion for summary judgment, and remanding the case to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) for further consideration. Defendant timely filed six objections to the R&R, which the Court considers here. For the reasons that follow, the Court SUSTAINS Defendant's objections and finds that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision. As a result, the R&R is REJECTED, Defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED, Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is DENIED, and the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         A. Background

         Defendant does not object to either the R&R's recitation of Plaintiff's claimed disabilities or its review of the ALJ's application of the disability framework analysis. (See Dkt. 19, at 2-5.) Therefore, the Court adopts and incorporates those portions of the R&R. The Court will introduce additional facts as necessary to evaluate Defendant's objections.

         At the most general level, the R&R recommends remanding the case because the ALJ violated the "treating physician rule" by "failing to give controlling weight to the opinion of [Plaintiff's] treating physician, Dr. Ronald Coriasso." (Id. at 6.) On a more granular level, the R&R finds that the ALJ committed the following errors: (1) the ALJ relied on his own medical expertise to draw conclusions from raw medical data; (2) the ALJ disregarded certain clinical findings that supported Dr. Coriasso's conclusions; (3) the ALJ did not provide good reasons for ignoring Dr. Coriasso's opinion that Plaintiff could not work a full day or week; (4) the ALJ disregarded the general rule that treating physicians' opinions are given more weight than those of consultants; and (5) the ALJ used evidence related to Plaintiff's credibility to "override" Dr. Coriasso's opinion. (Id. at 14, 19, 20, 22.) The R&R goes on to find that, because of those errors, the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) is not supported by substantial evidence. (Id. at 6.) The R&R explains: "These [issues] are intertwined in that, if the ALJ did not provide good reasons for giving little weight to Dr. Coriasso's opinion, the assessed RFC is unsustainable." (Id.)

         Defendant has filed six objections to the R&R, and the Court sustains each of them for the reasons below. In the process, the Court also finds that the ALJ's determination is supported by substantial evidence, so the Court concludes that a remand is unnecessary.

         B. Applicable Law

         1. Objections to a Magistrate Judge's R&R

         When a party objects to portions of a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the Court reviews such portions de novo. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). However, only specific objections that pinpoint a source of error are entitled to de novo review. Mira v. Marshall, 806 F.2d 636, 637 (6th Cir. 1986). General objections, or those that merely challenge the magistrate judge's overall determination, have "the same effects as would a failure to object." Howard v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 932 F.2d 505, 509 (6th Cir. 1991). That is, such objections are not valid, and the Court may treat them as if they were waived. See Bellmore-Byrne v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2016 WL 5219541, at *1 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 22, 2016) (citing id.).

         2. Judicial Review of an ALJ's Decision

         The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court "must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standards or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record." Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance of the evidence. See Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). When reviewing the Commissioner's decision, the Court should "not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence, or decide questions of credibility." Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007). Rather, if substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, it must be affirmed regardless of whether this Court would decide the matter differently or even if substantial evidence supports another conclusion. See Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994).

         C. Analysis

         1. The Application of the Treating Physician Rule to Dr. Coriasso's Opinion

         Defendant first objects to the R&R's finding that the ALJ failed to comply with the "treating physician rule" with respect to Dr. Coriasso's opinion. (Dkt. 20, at 1.) Under the treating physician rule, an ALJ must give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight if it is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the case record." Gentry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 741 F.3d 708, 723 (6th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). "When the treating physician's opinion is not controlling, the ALJ, in determining how much weight is appropriate, must consider a host of factors, including the length, frequency, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship; the supportability and consistency of the physician's conclusions; the ...


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