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Rodriguez v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 10, 2019

ANTHONY RODRIGUEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER OVERRULING DEFENDANT'S OBJECTIONS TO MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S AMENDED PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION AND ADOPTING THE AMENDED PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION

          MARTHA VÁZQUEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on (1) Defendant's Opposed Motion for Remand Pursuant to Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“Motion”), filed on June 18, 2019 (Doc. 22); (2) the Magistrate Judge's Amended Proposed Findings and Recommended Disposition (“Amended PFRD”) (Doc. 31), filed October 2, 2019; and (3) Defendant's Objections to Amended PFRD (“Objections”) (Doc. 32), filed October 16, 2019.[1] The Court, having considered the pending Motion and Objections, the record, and the relevant law, finds that Defendant's Objections are not well-taken and will overrule them and adopt the Amended PFRD.

         I. Introduction [2]

         On July 8, 2019, this Court issued an Order of Reference referring this case to United States Magistrate Judge John F. Robbenhaar for a recommended disposition. Doc. 24. The Magistrate Judge filed a PFRD pursuant to the Order of Reference on August 26, 2019. Doc. 28. Acting under the Court's inherent authority to reconsider its previous ruling, the Magistrate Judge filed an Amended PFRD on October 2, 2019. Doc. 31. Defendant timely filed Objections to the Amended PFRD on October 16, 2019 (Doc. 32), to which Plaintiff responded on October 25, 2019 (Doc. 33). Defendant's Motion, the Amended PFRD, and Defendant's Objections are now before the Court.

         When a party files timely written objections to a magistrate judge's recommendation on a dispositive matter, the district court must conduct a de novo review, and “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)(C). De novo review requires the district judge to consider relevant evidence in the record and not merely to review the magistrate judge's recommendation. In re Griego, 64 F.3d 580, 583-84 (10th Cir. 1995). “[A] party's objections to the magistrate judge's [PFRD] must be both timely and specific to preserve an issue for de novo review by the district court or for appellate review.” One Parcel of Real Prop., With Bldgs., Appurtenances, Improvements, & Contents, 73 F.3d, 1057 1060 (10th Cir. 1996).

         In applying for Title II disability benefits, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning April 2, 2009, because of chronic back pain, right knee and neck pain, and right-hand impairment. Tr. 213. This is the second time that Plaintiff has appealed the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) determination before this Court. In the ALJ's partially favorable determination at issue here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was disabled since November 26, 2013, but not disabled from his alleged onset date through November 26, 2013 (“the relevant period of time”). Tr. 671-87. The parties do not dispute the ALJ's partially favorable finding.[3] Additionally, the parties agree that Plaintiff's case should be remanded to the Social Security Administration to determine whether Plaintiff was disabled during the relevant period of time. Doc. 22 and Doc. 23 at 1. The parties disagree, however, on whether the case should be remanded for additional administrative proceedings or whether the case should be remanded for an immediate award of benefits. Docs. 22, 23, 25.

         In the Amended PFRD, the Magistrate Judge, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), found that the ALJ's decision that Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant period of time was not supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ did not apply the correct legal standards in making her determination. Doc. 31 at 10-19. Concluding that additional administrative proceedings would not serve any useful purpose and would delay the appropriate determination and award of benefits, the Magistrate Judge recommended that the case be remanded for an immediate award of damages. Id. at 19-25. In support of this recommendation, the Magistrate Judge found that the evidence upon which the Commissioner relied in deciding that Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant period of time was not supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 22-23. The Magistrate Judge further found that all of the treating and examining source opinion evidence during the relevant period of time supported a finding of disability. Id. at 23-25.

         Defendant objects to the Magistrate Judge's findings and recommendation, arguing that: (1) the Magistrate Judge improperly reweighed the evidence and made findings of fact, which is a role that Congress delegated to the Commissioner; (2) the record does not support a finding of disability as a matter of law with respect to the time period between April 2009 and November 2013; and (3) the equitable considerations at issue in the cases on which Plaintiff has relied are inapposite because Plaintiff was found disabled beginning in November 2013 and has been eligible for benefits on an ongoing basis. Doc. 32 at 2-5. Defendant requests that the Court reject the Magistrate Judge's Amended PFRD and instead remand this matter for additional administrative proceedings. Id. at 5.

         The Court has considered Defendant's Objections and the relevant law, and, based on a de novo review of the record, finds that the Objections are without merit, and will adopt the Magistrate Judge's Amended PFRD in whole.

         II. Analysis

         District courts have discretion to remand either for further administrative proceedings or for an immediate award of benefits. Ragland v. Shalala, 992 F.2d 1056, 1060 (10th Cir. 1993). In making this decision, courts should consider both “the length of time the matter has been pending and whether or not ‘given the available evidence, remand for additional fact-finding would serve [any] useful purpose [or] would merely delay the receipt of benefits.'” Salazar v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 615, 626 (10th Cir. 2006) (quoting Harris v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 821 F.2d 541, 545 (10th Cir. 1987)). When the Commissioner has failed to satisfy his burden of proof, and when there has been a long delay as a result of his erroneous disposition of the proceedings, remand for an immediate award of benefits may be appropriate. Ragland, 992 F.2d at 1060 (remanding for an immediate award of benefits “[i]n light of the Secretary's patent failure to satisfy the burden of proof at step five, and the long delay that has already occurred as a result of the Secretary's erroneous disposition of the proceedings”). The Commissioner “is not entitled to adjudicate a case ad infinitum until he correctly applies the proper legal standard and gathers evidence to support his conclusion.” Sisco v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 10 F.3d 739, 746 (10th Cir. 1993) (quoting Thaete v. Shalala, 826 F.Supp. 1250, 1252 (D. Colo. 1993)). The decision to direct an award of benefits should be made only when the administrative record has been fully developed and when substantial and uncontradicted evidence in the record as a whole indicates that the claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits. Gilliland v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 178, 184-85 (3d Cir. 1986).

         A. The Magistrate Judge Did Not Reweigh the Evidence

         Defendant first argues that in recommending an immediate award of benefits on remand, the Magistrate Judge reweighed the evidence and made findings of fact, which are tasks that Congress delegated to the Commissioner. Doc. 32 at 2. Specifically, Defendant contends that the Magistrate Judge engaged in improper reweighing of the evidence to conclude that “when the treating physician opinion evidence is properly evaluated and weighed, there is no reasonable probability that Mr. Rodriguez would be denied benefits.” Id. at 4. Defendant cites Miller v. Chater, 99 F.3d 972, 978 (10th Cir. 1996), for the proposition that the Court should have declined to reweigh the evidence and instead allow the “agency to act in its congressionally-delegated role to weigh the conflicting evidence and make findings of fact.”[4] Id. at 4.

         Under Tenth Circuit law, a reviewing court should not reweigh evidence but rather should review the ALJ's decision for the sole purpose of determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Branum v. Barnhart,385 F.3d 1268, 1270 (10th Cir. 2004). Id. While it is not the reviewing court's job to reweigh the evidence, the reviewing court nonetheless has a duty to meticulously examine the record and make its determination on the record as a whole. Broadbent v. Harris, 698 F.2d 407, 414 (10th Cir. 1983). Reweighing evidence occurs when the reviewing court chooses to substitute its judgment for that of the agency to reach a different conclusion where the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and the ALJ's determination was supported by substantial evidence. See, e.g., Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1071 (10th Cir. 2007) (declining to reweigh evidence where claimant asked court to consider effects of her fibromyalgia in combination with her other impairments, but where record reflected that ALJ adequately considered claimant's impairments in combination); White v. Barnhart, 298 F.3d 903, 907-08 (10th Cir. 2001) (finding that had Court been factfinder it may have reached a different conclusion, but that ALJ had articulated adequate reasons for disregarding opinion evidence that were supported by substantial evidence, and to disregard ALJ's decision would be to reweigh evidence); Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1500 (10th Cir. 1992) (finding that claimant's arguments that strength of evidence favored disability improperly asked court to reweigh evidence where ALJ's determination was supported by substantial evidence); Lee v. Berryhill, 669 Fed.Appx. 589, 591-92 (10th Cir. 2017) (unpublished) (declining to reweigh evidence where claimant pointed to evidence demonstrating that she needed additional breaks to attend to her insulin pump, but where substantial ...


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