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Smith v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

September 23, 2013

Kevin M. Smith, Plaintiff
v.
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER INTRODUCTION

JEFFREY J. HELMICK, District Judge.

This matter is before me on the objections of Plaintiff Kevin M. Smith to the Report and Recommendation of Magistrate Judge Vernelis K. Armstrong, II, regarding Smith's complaint seeking review of a final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security. (Doc. No. 1). For the reasons stated below, I adopt the Magistrate Judge's recommendations as set forth in the Report and Recommendation and affirm the decision of the Commissioner.

BACKGROUND

Magistrate Judge Armstrong set forth the procedural and factual background of this case, and I adopt these sections from her Report and Recommendation, with the exception of one amendment.[1] ( See Doc. No. 36 at 1-16).

Smith argues Magistrate Judge Armstrong erred in failing to recommend reversal and remand of the findings of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), and submits three objections to the Report and Recommendation. Smith objects to Magistrate Judge Armstrong's findings that (1) ALJ Hunn conducted a full and fair hearing; (2) ALJ Hunn's denial of benefits is properly supported by substantial evidence; and (3) Smith's motion for remand is unwarranted. (Doc. No. 16 at 2).

The Commissioner filed a response to Smith's objections. (Doc. No. 38). The Commissioner stated Smith's objections fail to show any error on the part of the Magistrate Judge or the ALJ and, furthermore, Magistrate Judge Armstrong's conclusions, based on a thorough review of the evidence, are proper. (Id. at 1).

STANDARD

A district court must conduct a de novo review of "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. Pro. 72(b)(3); see also Norman v. Astrue, 694 F.Supp.2d 738, 740 (N.D. Ohio 2010).

A district judge "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); see also 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g). "Substantial evidence is defined as such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007) ( quoting Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001)). If the Commissioner's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, those findings are conclusive. McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006).

ANALYSIS

I. DENIAL OF FULL AND FAIR HEARING

In Smith's objections to the Report and Recommendation, Smith contends ALJ Hunn denied him a full and fair hearing by failing to fully develop the record. (Doc. No.37). As Magistrate Judge Armstrong noted, the duty to ensure every claimant receives a full and fair hearing ultimately lies with the ALJ. Lashley v. Sec. of Health and Human Services, 708 F.2d 1048, 1051 (6th Cir. 1983), citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 410 (1971). The ALJ generally "must not become a partisan and assume the role of counsel[;]... he [must] act as an examiner charged with developing the facts." Id. "[W]here [a] claimant is unrepresented by counsel [however, ] the ALJ has a duty to exercise a heightened level of care and assume a more active role." Id. Whether the ALJ fails to fully develop the record in derogation of this heightened responsibility is determined on a case-bycase basis. Id. at 1052.

Magistrate Judge Armstrong determined ALJ Hunn was not under a heightened duty to take on a more active role and assume the role of counsel during the proceeding. (Doc. No. 36 at 22). In support of this, she compared the facts in Lashley to the instant case and found Smith, unlike the plaintiff in Lashley, was represented by counsel and therefore able to understand the nature of the proceedings. (Id.). Accordingly, Magistrate Judge Armstrong correctly determined ALJ Hunn was not under a heightened duty to assume the role of counsel.

Smith objects Magistrate Judge Armstrong did not follow the case-by-case determination required under Lashley because she overlooked relevant facts peculiar to the instant case. (Doc. No. 37 at 4). Specifically, Smith states ALJ Hunn knew Smith's counsel was inexperienced and unaware of the issues to be addressed during the hearing and therefore, to satisfy her duty to conduct a full and fair hearing, ALJ Hunn should have notified Smith's counsel of the issues to be addressed in a pre-hearing conference. (Id.). Smith adds that ...


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