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Thomas L. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

October 24, 2018

THOMAS L., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant


          William E. Smith Chief Judge.

         Before the Court is Magistrate Judge Sullivan's Report and Recommendation (“R. & R.”) (ECF No. 16), which recommends that the Court deny Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (ECF No. 9) and grant Defendant's Motion to Affirm the Decision (ECF No. 11) and to which Plaintiff objected (ECF No. 18). After careful review of the R. & R. and the relevant papers, the Court accepts the R. & R. over Plaintiff's objection and adopts its recommendations and reasoning.


         A detailed recitation of the facts can be found in the R. & R. and so only a very brief summary follows here. Plaintiff has applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) three times over the past ten years: first in 2008, then in 2011, and again in 2014. (R. & R. 2-3.) Each application was based on allegations that Plaintiff suffered from back pain caused by a workplace injury in 2008, as well as mental impairments due to Plaintiff's low I.Q. (Id.) The first two applications were denied and Plaintiff did not appeal from those denials. (Id.) By the time Plaintiff filed his third DIB application, the one currently under review, he had almost exhausted the disability insurance he had built up during his years of working; his maximum DIB recovery in this case would have spanned only the seven-month period between his alleged disability onset date (August 30, 2012) and his date-last-insured (March 31, 2013). (Id. at 3.) The third application was also denied, giving rise to this appeal. (Id.)


         Where an objection has been properly filed, the Court reviews de novo an R. & R. addressing a dispositive matter. See Emissive Energy Corp. v. SPA-Simrad, Inc., 788 F.Supp.2d 40, 42 (D.R.I. 2011); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). Accordingly, the Court reviews the decision of the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) using the same standard of review that was applied by the Magistrate Judge.

         When reviewing the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying disability benefits, the Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if they are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla” - that is, “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). The determination of substantiality is based upon an evaluation of the record as a whole. Brown v. Apfel, 71 F.Supp.2d 28, 30 (D.R.I. 1999); see also Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1180 (11th Cir. 1986) (stating that the court must also consider evidence contrary to the evidence on which the Commissioner relied). Once the Court concludes that the decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must affirm that decision, even if the Court would have reached a contrary result as the finder of fact. Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1987).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The crux of Plaintiff's argument is that the ALJ's decision was “poorly-explained” and not based on substantial evidence and, therefore, the Magistrate Judge was wrong to affirm it. (Pl.'s Obj. to R. & R. 7, 14.) He advances three specific arguments to support his Objection: (1) that the Magistrate Judge “understated the significance of the issues presented” (Id. at 3); (2) that the Magistrate Judge did not adequately summarize the medical evidence Plaintiff presented (Id. at 4-5); and (3) that the ALJ and the Magistrate Judge made improper medical judgments about the meaning of the 2012 MRI and the 2009 I.Q. scores (Id. at 6-9.) Plaintiff also posits a blanket objection to as-yet unidentified errors in the in the R. & R., stating: “For any argument that [Plaintiff] raised in his primary memorandum and reply memorandum that the Magistrate did not specifically address in her [R. & R.], [Plaintiff] objects to the failure to address them.” (Id. at 14.)

         A. The Magistrate Judge Did Not Understate the Significance of the Issues Presented.

         Plaintiff takes umbrage at the Magistrate Judge's R. & R. because he feels that she “understated the significance of the issues presented” when she found that Plaintiff sought DIB for a “relatively short” seven-month period. (Id. at 3; R. & R 21.) According to Plaintiff, that characterization does not adequately capture the fact that, in the absence of DIB, Plaintiff was forced to “spen[d] all of his savings down to below $2, 000.00” and “liv[e] on the street” in order to become eligible to receive Social Security Insurance (“SSI”) benefits, which ultimately provided him with only about eighty percent of the income he would have been entitled to receive from DIB. (Pl.'s Obj. to R. & R. 4.) Plaintiff claims that DIB and SSI are fundamentally different benefits because the former is an earned benefit that not subject to income limitations, while the latter is a welfare benefit, available only to individuals who possess fewer than $2, 000.00 in assets and is, therefore, inherently less reliable. (Id. at 3-4.)

         This argument is a non-starter because the difference between DIB and SSI benefits was not material (or even collateral) to the disposition of this case. As such, the Magistrate Judge's alleged “understatement” of the issues does not require the Court to reject her R. & R.

         B. The Magistrate Judge Did Not Wrongly Assess Plaintiff's Medical Background.

         The Plaintiff next argues that the Magistrate Judge improperly took a “constricted review of the medical evidence” when she relied on doctors' notes from the Rhode Island Free Clinic discussing the 2012 MRI that were created during the seven-month period in issue. (Id. 4-5.) According to Plaintiff, “the few notes available from the Rhode Island ...

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