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Romero v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 29, 2018

DOLORES A. ROMERO, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Francesca J. MacDowell MacDowell Law, P.C. Placitas, New Mexico Attorney for the Plaintiff

          Laura H. Holland Alexess D. Rea Social Security Administration Office of the General Counsel Denver, Colorado --and-- John C. Anderson United States Attorney Manuel Lucero Assistant United States Attorney United States Attorney's Office Albuquerque, New Mexico Attorneys for the Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER ADOPTING THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on: (i) the Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum, filed September 5, 2017 (Doc. 20)(“Motion”); (ii) the Objections to Magistrate Judge's Proposed Findings and Recommended Disposition Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), filed February 7, 2018 (Doc. 28)(“Objections”); and (iii) the Magistrate Judge's Proposed Findings and Recommended Disposition, filed January 26, 2018 (Doc. 27)(“PFRD”). Having reviewed the decision of the Honorable Jerry H. Ritter, United States Magistrate Judge for the District of New Mexico, and Plaintiff Dolores Romero's Objections, the Court overrules Romero's Objections and adopts Magistrate Judge Ritter's PFRD in full.

         BACKGROUND

         Romero applied for disability insurance benefits, asserting that she is disabled due to severe central spinal canal stenosis. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who denied her claim recognized that she has the “severe impairments” of “status post lumbar spinal canal stenosis status post surgery in 2003 and decompression in November 2012, fibromyalgia, early osteoarthrosis of the left sacroiliac joint, osteopenia of the lumbar spine and femoral neck, and chronic pain syndrome.” Decision at 3, Administrative Record at 21, filed June 19, 2017 (Doc. 15-3)(“Decision”). Despite her impairments, however, the ALJ determined that Romero retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(b).” Decision at 6, Administrative Record at 24. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Romero is capable of returning to her past relevant work as a gambling cashier, billing clerk, receptionist, customer service representative, and private bank exchange service adviser. See Decision at 10, Administrative Record at 28. Thus, the ALJ denied benefits. See Decision at 11, Administrative Record at 29.

         Romero appealed to the Court, asserting that substantial evidence did not support the ALJ's RFC finding and that the RFC is contrary to law. See Motion at 12. Romero further argued that the ALJ committed reversible error by determining that Romero can perform her past relevant work. See Motion at 21-22. Magistrate Judge Ritter addressed, and rejected, Romero's arguments. Romero, nevertheless, disagrees with nearly every conclusion Magistrate Judge Ritter reached, while Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), argues in support of the Magistrate Judge Ritter's decision. Ultimately, the Court agrees with Magistrate Judge Ritter's conclusions and overrules Romero's Objections.

         LAW REGARDING OBJECTIONS TO PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

         District courts may refer dispositive motions to a Magistrate Judge for a recommended disposition. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(1) (“A magistrate judge must promptly conduct the required proceedings when assigned, without the parties' consent, to hear a pretrial matter dispositive of a claim or defense . . . .”). Rule 72(b)(2) governs objections: “Within 10 days after being served with a copy of the recommended disposition, a party may serve and file specific written objections to the proposed findings and recommendations.” Finally, when resolving objections to a Magistrate Judge's proposal, “the district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to. The district judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). Similarly, 28 U.S.C. § 636 provides:

A judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made. A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.

28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C).

         “The filing of objections to a magistrate's report enables the district judge to focus attention on those issues -- factual and legal -- that are at the heart of the parties' dispute.” United States v. One Parcel of Real Property, With Buildings, Appurtenances, Improvements, and Contents, 73 F.3d 1057, 1059 (10th Cir. 1996)(“One Parcel”)(quoting Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 147 (1985)). As the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has noted, “the filing of objections advances the interests that underlie the Magistrate's Act, [1] including judicial efficiency.” One Parcel, 73 F.3d at 1059 (citing Niehaus v. Kan. Bar Ass'n, 793 F.2d 1159, 1165 (10th Cir. 1986); United States v. Walters, 638 F.2d 947, 950 (6th Cir. 1981)).

         The Tenth Circuit has held “that a party's objections to the magistrate judge's report and recommendation must be both timely and specific to preserve an issue for de novo review by the district court or for appellate review.” One Parcel, 73 F.3d at 1060. “To further advance the policies behind the Magistrate's Act, [the Tenth Circuit], like numerous other circuits, have adopted ‘a firm waiver rule' that ‘provides that the failure to make timely objections to the magistrate's findings or recommendations waives appellate review of both factual and legal questions.'” One Parcel, 73 F.3d at 1059 (citations omitted). In addition to requiring specificity in objections, the Tenth Circuit has stated that “[i]ssues raised for the first time in objections to the magistrate judge's recommendation are deemed waived.” Marshall v. Chater, 75 F.3d 1421, 1426 (10th Cir. 1996). See United States v. Garfinkle, 261 F.3d 1030, 1030-31 (10th Cir. 2001)(“In this circuit, theories raised for the first time in objections to the magistrate judge's report are deemed waived.”). In an unpublished opinion, the Tenth Circuit stated that “the district court correctly held that [a petitioner] had waived [an] argument by failing to raise it before the magistrate.” Pevehouse v. Scibana, 229 Fed.Appx. 795, 796 (10th Cir. 2007)(unpublished).[2]

         In One Parcel, the Tenth Circuit, in accord with other Courts of Appeals, expanded the waiver rule to cover objections that are timely but too general. See One Parcel, 73 F.3d at 1060. The Supreme Court of the United States of America -- in the course of approving the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit's use of the waiver rule -- has noted:

It does not appear that Congress intended to require district court review of a magistrate's factual or legal conclusions, under a de novo or any other standard, when neither party objects to those findings. The House and Senate Reports accompanying the 1976 amendments do not expressly consider what sort of review the district court should perform when no party objects to the magistrate's report. See S. Rep. No. 94-625, pp. 9-10 (1976) (hereafter Senate Report); H. R. Rep. No. 94-1609, p. 11 (1976), U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News 1976, p. 6162 (hereafter House Report). There is nothing in those Reports, however, that demonstrates an intent to require the district court to give any more consideration to the magistrate's report than the court considers appropriate. Moreover, the Subcommittee that drafted and held hearings on the 1976 amendments had before it the guidelines of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts concerning the efficient use of magistrates. Those guidelines recommended to the district courts that “[w]here a magistrate makes a finding or ruling on a motion or an issue, his determination should become that of the district court, unless specific objection is filed within a reasonable time.” See Jurisdiction of United States Magistrates, Hearings on S. 1283 before the Subcommittee on Improvements in Judicial Machinery of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 94th Cong., 1st Sess., 24 (1975)(emphasis added)(hereinafter Senate Hearings). The Committee also heard Judge Metzner of the Southern District of New York, the chairman of a Judicial Conference Committee on the administration of the magistrate system, testify that he personally followed that practice. See id., at 11 (“If any objections come in, . . . I review [the record] and decide it. If no objections come in, I merely sign the magistrate's order.”). The Judicial Conference of the United States, which supported the de novo standard of review eventually incorporated in § 636(b)(1)(C), opined that in most instances no party would object to the magistrate's recommendation, and the litigation would terminate with the judge's adoption of the magistrate's report. See Senate Hearings, at 35, 37. Congress apparently assumed, therefore, that any party who was dissatisfied for any reason with the magistrate's report would file objections, and those objections would trigger district court review. There is no indication that Congress, in enacting § 636(b)(1)(C), intended to require a district judge to review a magistrate's report to which no objections are filed. It did not preclude treating the failure to object as a procedural default, waiving the right to further consideration of any sort. We thus find nothing in the statute or the legislative history that convinces us that Congress intended to forbid a rule such as the one adopted by the Sixth Circuit.

Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. at 150-52 (emphasis in original)(footnotes omitted).

         The Tenth Circuit also noted, “however, that ‘[t]he waiver rule as a procedural bar need not be applied when the interests of justice so dictate.'” One Parcel, 73 F.3d at 1060 (quoting Moore v. United States, 950 F.2d 656, 659 (10th Cir. 1991)(“We join those circuits that have declined to apply the waiver rule to a pro se litigant's failure to object when the magistrate's order does not apprise the pro se litigant of the consequences of a failure to object to findings and recommendations.”). Cf. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. at 154 (noting that, while “[a]ny party that desires plenary consideration by the Article III judge of any issue need only ask, ” a failure to object “does not preclude further review by the district judge, sua sponte or at the request of a party, under a de novo or any other standard”). In One Parcel, the Tenth Circuit noted that the district judge had decided sua sponte to conduct a de novo review despite the objection's lack of specificity, but the Tenth Circuit held that it would deem the issues waived on appeal, because it would advance the interests underlying the waiver rule. See 73 F.3d at 1060-61 (citing cases from other Courts of Appeals where district courts elected to address merits despite potential application of waiver rule, but circuit courts opted to enforce waiver rule).

         Where a party files timely and specific objections to the Magistrate Judge's proposed findings and recommendation, “on [] dispositive motions, the statute calls for a de novo determination, not a de novo hearing.” United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 674 (1980). “[I]n providing for a ‘de novo determination' rather than de novo hearing, Congress intended to permit whatever reliance a district judge, in the exercise of sound judicial discretion, chose to place on a magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations.” United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. at 676 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 636(b); citing Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 275 (1976)). The Tenth Circuit requires a “district court to consider relevant evidence of record and not merely review the magistrate judge's recommendation, ” when conducting a de novo review of a party's timely, specific objections to the Magistrate Judge's report. In re Griego, 64 F.3d 580, 583-84 (10th Cir. 1995). “When objections are made to the magistrate's factual findings based on conflicting testimony or evidence . . . . the district court must, at a minimum, listen to a tape recording or read a transcript of the evidentiary hearing.” Gee v. Estes, 829 F.2d 1005, 1008-09 (10th Cir. 1987).

         A district court must “clearly indicate that it is conducting a de novo determination” when a party objects to the Magistrate Judge's report “based upon conflicting evidence or testimony.” Gee v. Estes, 829 F.2d at 1009. On the other hand, a district court fails to meet the requirements of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) when it indicates that it gave “considerable deference to the magistrate's order.” Ocelot Oil Corp. v. Sparro Indus., 847 F.2d 1458, 1464 (10th Cir. 1988). A district court need not, however, “make any specific findings; the district court must merely conduct a de novo review of the record.” Garcia v. City of Albuquerque, 232 F.3d 760, 766 (10th Cir. 2000). “[T]he district court is presumed to know that de novo review is required. . . . Consequently, a brief order expressly stating the court conducted de novo review is sufficient.” Northington v. Marin, 102 F.3d 1564, 1570 (10th Cir. 1996)(citing In re Griego, 64 F.3d at 583-84). “[E]xpress references to de novo review in its order must be taken to mean it properly considered the pertinent portions of the record, absent some clear indication otherwise.” Bratcher v. Bray-Doyle Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 42, 8 F.3d 722, 724 (10th Cir. 1993). The Tenth Circuit has previously held that a district court properly conducted a de novo review of a party's evidentiary objections when the district court's “terse” order contained one sentence for each of the party's “substantive claims” and did “not mention his procedural challenges to the jurisdiction of the magistrate to hear the motion.” Garcia v. City of Albuquerque, 232 F.3d at 766. The Tenth Circuit has explained that brief district court orders that “merely repeat the language of § 636(b)(1) to indicate its compliance” are sufficient to demonstrate that the district court conducted a de novo review:

It is common practice among district judges in this circuit to make such a statement and adopt the magistrate judges' recommended dispositions when they find that magistrate judges have dealt with the issues fully and accurately and that they could add little of value to that analysis. We cannot interpret the district court's ...

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