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Hubbard v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 23, 2019

DAN R. HUBBARD, III, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER OVERRULING PLAINTIFF’S OBJECTIONS AND ADOPTING MAGISTRATE JUDGE’S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          MARIANNE O. BATTANI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Before the Court are objections (Dkt. 18) filed by Plaintiff Dan R. Hubbard, III, to a June 10, 2019 Report and Recommendation (“R & R”) issued by Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Stafford (Dkt. 17). In the R & R, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the Court deny Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 15), grant the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security’s motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 16), and affirm the challenged decision of the Defendant Commissioner. For the reasons discussed below, the Court OVERRULES Plaintiff’s objections and ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge’s R & R in its entirety.

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Neither party has objected to the Magistrate Judge’s statement of the procedural history and background facts of this case regarding Plaintiff’s application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits. Nor do they object to the Magistrate Judge’s summary of the administrative proceedings and findings of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on Plaintiff’s claim for benefits. Accordingly, the Court adopts these unchallenged portions of the R & R.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A district court must conduct a de novo review of any portion of a magistrate judge’s R & R to which a party objects. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The district court “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The requirement of de novo review “is a statutory recognition that Article III of the United States Constitution mandates that the judicial power of the United States be vested in judges with life tenure.” United States v. Shami, 754 F.2d 670, 672 (6th Cir. 1985). Accordingly, Congress enacted 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) to “insure[ ] that the district judge would be the final arbiter” of matters referred to a magistrate judge. Flournoy v. Marshall, 842 F.2d 875, 878 (6th Cir. 1988).

         The Court must affirm the decision of the Defendant Commissioner so long as “it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.” Rogers v. Commissioner of Social Security, 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence is defined as more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). If the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, “it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently, and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion.” Cutlip v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted).

         When determining whether the Defendant Commissioner’s factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, the Court confines its examination to the administrative record considered as a whole. Wyatt v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992). There is no requirement, however, that either the Commissioner or this Court must discuss every piece of evidence in the record. Kornecky v. Commissioner of Social Security, No. 04-2171, 167 Fed.Appx. 496, 508 (6th Cir. Feb. 9, 2006). Further, in reviewing the Defendant Commissioner’s resolution of Plaintiff’s claim for benefits, this Court does 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).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff advances two objections to the R & R, each of which essentially reiterates an argument raised in his underlying motion for summary judgment. First, he challenges the Magistrate Judge’s determination that the Court lacks jurisdiction to consider whether the ALJ complied with the Appeals Council’s April 13, 2016 order of remand. Next, he contends that the Magistrate Judge erred in finding that the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence. The Court addresses each of these objections in turn.

         A. Objection No. 1

         In an April 13, 2016 order, the Appeals Council remanded Plaintiff’s claim for benefits to the ALJ for further administrative proceedings, instructing the ALJ to consolidate Plaintiff’s claim files, further consider certain materials in the record, further evaluate Plaintiff’s impairments and limitations, and obtain additional evidence from a vocational expert. (See Admin. Record at 661-62.) In his underlying motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff argued that the ALJ failed to comply with these directives, and that the ALJ’s decision therefore should be set aside as issued in violation of the Appeals Council’s order of remand and a Social Security regulation mandating that an ALJ “shall take any action that is ordered by the Appeals Council.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.977(b). In the R & R, however, the Magistrate Judge declined to address the merits of this challenge, and instead held that the Court “lacks jurisdiction to review the ALJ’s compliance with the remand order.” (R & R at 8.) Plaintiff now objects to this jurisdictional ruling, contending that the Court’s refusal to review the ALJ’s compliance with the Appeals Council’s order of remand would make it impossible to enforce the Defendant Commissioner’s “clear, non-discretionary duty to follow . . . his own administrative regulations.” Buchanan v. Apfel, 249 F.3d 485, 492 (6th Cir. 2001).

         As observed in the R & R, the Sixth Circuit has not yet addressed the question whether the federal courts have the authority to review an ALJ’s alleged failure to comply with an Appeals Council order of remand, but the “overwhelming majority of [district] courts in this circuit” have concluded that they lack this authority. (R & R at 7-8 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).) In his objections to the R & R, Plaintiff urges the Court to adopt the minority view on this ...


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