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Romanus v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Aiken Division

December 10, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration,[1] Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on United States Magistrate Judge Shiva V. Hodges's Report and Recommendation ("R&R") that this court affirm Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's ("the Commissioner") decision denying iplaintiff Toni Kaye Romanus's ("Romanus") application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). Romanus filed objections to the R&R. For the reasons set forth below, the court adopts the R&R and affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Unless otherwise noted, the following background is drawn from the R&R.

         A. Procedural History

         Romanus filed an application for DIB and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on June 16, 2014, alleging disability beginning on February 7, 2014, which was later amended to September 9, 2015.[2] The Social Security Agency denied Romanus's claims initially, ' and her DIB claim was denied on reconsideration.[3] Romanus requested a hearing. before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), and ALJ John T. Molleur held a hearing on July 12, 2016.

         The ALJ issued a decision on August 31, 2016, finding Romanus not disabled under the Social Security Act. Romanus requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision. The Appeals Council denied Romanus's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On January 3, 2017, Romanus filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's decision. The magistrate judge issued an R&R on September 25, 2017, recommending that this court affirm the ALJ's decision. Romanus filed objections to the R&R on October 10, 2017, to which the Commissioner responded on October 23, 2017. The matter is now ripe for the court's review.

         B. Medical History

         Because Romanus's medical history is not directly at issue here, the court dispenses with a lengthy recitation thereof and instead notes a few relevant facts. Romanus was born on August 26, 1956, and was fifty-nine years old on the alleged onset date. She has a high school education and past relevant work experience as a merchandiser.

         C. ALJ's Findings

         The Social Security Act defines "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death, or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 rhonths[.]" 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Social Security regulations establish a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Under this process, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant: (1) "is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity;" (2) "has a severe impairment;"(3) has an impairment which equals an illness contained in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1, "which warrants a finding of disability without considering vocational factors;"(4) if not, whether the claimant has an impairment that prevents her from performing past relevant work; and (5) if so, "whether the claimant is able to perform other work considering both [her] remaining physical and mental capacities" (defined by her residual functional capacity) and her "vocational capabilities (age, education, and past work experience) to adjust to a new job." Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264-65 (4th Cir. 1981); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The applicant bears the burden of proof during the first four steps of the inquiry, while the burden shifts to the Commissioner for the final step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citing Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992)).

         The ALJ employed the statutorily-required five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether Romanus was disabled beginning September 9, 2015. The ALJ first determined that Romanus did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period at issue. Tr. 22. At the second step, the ALJ found that Romanus suffered from the following severe impairments: seronegative rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis of the hands and feet. Tr. 22-24. At step three, the ALJ found that Romanus's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or equal one of the listed impairments in the Agency'.s Listings of Impairments ("the Listings"). Tr. 24-26; see 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. Before reaching the fourth step, the ALJ determined Romanus had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform medium work as defined by the Social Security Act, with frequent fingering with the bilateral hands and frequent postural activities except for occasional climbing of ropes and ladders. Tr. 26. Specifically, the ALJ found that Romanus had the ability to lift and carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently, and stand, walk, and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. Tr. 26. The ALJ found at step four that Romanus was able to perform past relevant-work as a merchandiser and that this work did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by Romanus's RFC. Tr. 29. Therefore, the ALJ found that Romanus was not disabled "from September 9, 2015, through the date of the decision. Tr. 29


         This court is charged with conducting a de novo review of any portion of the magistrate judge's R&R to which specific, written objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). A party's failure to object is accepted as agreement with the magistrate judge's conclusions. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149-50 (1985). The R&R carries no presumptive weight, and the ...

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