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Fraley v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

January 10, 2020

CHRISTY FRALEY, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SHONT. ERWIN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying Plaintiff's applications for benefits under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner has answered and filed a transcript of the administrative record (hereinafter TR.___). The parties have consented to jurisdiction over this matter by a United States magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         The parties have briefed their positions, and the matter is now at issue. Based on the Court's review of the record and the issues presented, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Initially and on reconsideration, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications for benefits. Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 17-32). The Appeals Council (AC) granted Plaintiff's request for review, but ultimately affirmed the ALJ's decision. (TR. 4-8). Thus, the decision of the AC became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106- 107 (2000) (“[I]f the Appeals Council grants review of a claim, then the decision that the Council issues is the Commissioner's final decision.”).

         II. THE APPEALS COUNCIL'S DECISION

         The AC followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 416.920. At step one, the AC determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 19, 2015. (TR. 6). At step two, the AC determined that Ms. Fraley had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the thoracic spine; osteoarthritis; fibromyalgia; lumbago chronic pain syndrome; anxiety with panic disorder; depression; history of carpal tunnel syndrome; hypertension; diabetes mellitus; inflammatory arthritis with positive ANA; colitis diverticulitis; lupus; and obesity. (TR. 6-7). At step three, the AC found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (TR. 7).

         At step four, the AC concluded that Ms. Fraley could not perform her past relevant work, but retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform:

a reduced range of light work with the following limitations: the claimant is able to understand, remember, and apply simple and detailed instructions; is able [to] concentrate and persist for extended periods in order to complete simple and detailed work tasks with routine supervision and adapt appropriately to a routine work environment; is able to maintain appropriate work relationships with coworkers and supervisors, but should have infrequent work related contact with the general public; is limited to frequent, but not constant handling and fingering bilaterally; must avoid concentrated exposure to loud noises; and the claimant requires a sit/stand option, defined as a brief positional change from sitting to standing and vice versa with no more than one change in position every 20 minutes and without leaving the work station so as not to diminish pace or production.

(TR. 7).

         At the administrative hearing, the ALJ had presented these RFC limitations to a vocational expert (VE) to determine whether there were other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (TR. 69-70). Given the limitations, the VE identified three jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). (TR. 70). The AC adopted the VE's testimony and concluded that Ms. Fraley was not disabled at step five based on her ability to perform the identified jobs. (TR. 7).[1]

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's final decision “to determin[e] whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). Under the “substantial evidence” standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains “sufficien[t] evidence” to support the agency's factual determinations. Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019). “Substantial evidence … is more than a mere scintilla … and means only-such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. at 1154 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

         While the court considers whether the ALJ followed the applicable rules of law in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, the court will “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Vigil v. ...


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