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Smoak v. Berryhill

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

December 12, 2017

BRENDA L. SMOAK, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on United States Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant's Report and Recommendation ("R&R") that this court affirm Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's ("the Commissioner") decision denying plaintiff Brenda L. Smoak's ("Smoak") application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Smoak 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

         Smoak filed an application for SSI on December 11, 2013, [2] alleging disability beginning on January 3, 2007, which was later amended to August 1, 2015. The Social Security Agency denied Smoak's claims initially and on reconsideration. Smoak requested a hearing before an ALJ, and ALJ Gregory M. Wilson held a hearing on April 15, 2016.

         The ALJ issued a decision on June 15, 2016, finding Smoak not disabled under the Social; Security Act. Smoak requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision. The Appeals Council denied Smoak's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On September 30, 2016, Smoak filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's decision. The magistrate judge issued an R&R on October 12, 2017, recommending that this court affirm the ALJ's decision. Smoak filed Objections to the R&R on October 19, 2017, to which the Commissioner responded on November 1, 2017. The matter is now ripe for the court's review.

         B. Medical History

         Because Smoak's medical history is not directly at issue here, the court dispenses with a lengthy recitation thereof and instead notes a few relevant facts. Smoak was born on January 13, 1961, and was fifty-three years old on the alleged onset date. She has a high school education[3] and past relevant work experience as a fast food cook and housekeeper.

         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 months[.]" 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 jwhether 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 RFC) 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 Smoak was disabled beginning August 1, 2015. The ALJ first determined that Smoak did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period at issue. Tr. 11. At the second step, the ALJ found that Smoak suffered from the following severe impairments: status post hip replacement surgery, obesity, asthma, diabetes mellitus, degenerative disc disease, arthritis of the bilateral hands, chronic pain syndrome, ! and depression. Tr. 11. At step three, the ALJ found that Smoak'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. 12-14; see 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. Before reaching the fourth step, the ALJ determined Smoak had the RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c). Tr. 14. Specifically, the ALJ found that Smoak was limited to frequently pushing or pulling with her left lower extremity; frequently handling and fingering bilaterally with her upper extremities; never climbing ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; occasionally climbing ramps and stairs; frequently balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; avoiding concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, fumes, odors, dust, gases, and workplace hazards; and performing simple, one or two-step tasks, with frequent contact with the public. Tr. 14. The ALJ found at step four that Smoak was unable to perform past relevant work as a fast food cook and housekeeper. Tr. 22. Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined that, considering Smoak's age, education, work experience, and RFC, she could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy and concluded that she was not disabled during the period at issue. Tr. 22-23.


         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 (1985V The R&R carries no presumptive weight, and the ...

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