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Speaks v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

December 29, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Kristi Speaks appeals the denial of her claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. United States District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange has referred this matter to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for initial proceedings consistent with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has answered and filed the administrative record (Doc. No. 11, hereinafter “R. ”).[1] The parties have briefed their positions, and the case is now ready for decision. For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned recommends that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.


         Plaintiff filed this, her second application for Social Security benefits, on July 2, 2013, originally alleging an onset date of May 13, 2012. R. 99. Previously, Plaintiff had filed applications for both DIB under Title II and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act. R. 9. The previous applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. However, on May 17, 2013, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Jodi B. Levine issued a fully favorable decision granting Plaintiff's previous applications for DIB and SSI for a closed period of disability beginning May 1, 2009, and ending July 17, 2011. R. 98.

         In the instant case, Plaintiff's amended disability onset date is May 18, 2013, the day after ALJ Levine issued her fully favorable opinion. The previous case was not reopened.

         Following denial of Plaintiff's application for DIB in the instant case, both initially and on reconsideration, R. 68-93, ALJ Edward L. Thompson held a hearing on January 28, 2015. R. 6-67. Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on June 16, 2015. R. 98-111. The SSA Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's unfavorable decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1-3; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Plaintiff then filed this action for judicial review.


         As relevant here, a person is “disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act if he or she is “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine entitlement to disability benefits. See Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         After determining that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through September 30, 2016, the ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 18, 2013, her amended alleged onset date. R. 101. At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following impairments that, in combination, were the equivalent of a “severe” impairment: lumbar and thoracic spondylosis status post interbody fusion at ¶ 4-5 and L5-S1; morbid obesity; hypertension; an affective disorder; and an anxiety-related disorder. R. 101. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 101-04.

         The ALJ next assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all of her medically determinable impairments. He found Plaintiff can perform light work with the following additional limitations:

the claimant can never climb a ladder, rope, or scaffold; the claimant can frequently balance; the claimant can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs; the claimant must avoid even moderate exposure to hazards, such as dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights; the claimant has the mental capacity to perform, understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine tasks; the claimant cannot understand and remember detailed or complex instructions; the claimant can have no contact with the general public; the claimant can relate to others for work purposes, but should not work with the general public; and the claimant can adapt to a work environment.

R. 104-05; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) (defining “light” work).

         At step four, the ALJ relied “on SSA policy and therefore ma[de] no findings concerning the claimant's past relevant work.” R. 110 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1565). At step five, the ALJ considered whether there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff-in view of her age, education, work experience, and RFC-could perform. Based on the hearing testimony of a vocational expert regarding the degree of erosion to the unskilled light occupational base that is caused by Plaintiff's additional nonexertional limitations, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could perform occupations such as bottling-line attendant, electrode cleaner, and addresser, all of which exist in significant numbers in the ...

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