United States District Court, D. Maryland
August 19, 2015, Plaintiff Pamela Sue Masters petitioned this
Court to review the Social Security Administration’s
("SSA") final decision to deny her claims for
Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security
Income. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties’
cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 15, 17). I find
that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D.
Md. 2014). This Court must uphold the decision of the Agency
if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the Agency
employed proper legal standards. See 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76
F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will
deny both motions, reverse the Commissioner’s decision
in part, and remand the case to the Commissioner for further
consideration. This letter explains my rationale.
28, 2011, Ms. Masters filed her claims for benefits, alleging
a disability onset date of September 7, 2010. (Tr. 168-81).
Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr.
106-13, 120-23). A hearing was held on February 12, 2014,
before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr.
28-61). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms.
Masters was not disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 12-27). The
Appeals Council denied Ms. Masters’s request for
review, (Tr. 1-5), so the ALJ’s decision constitutes
the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Ms. Masters suffered from the severe impairments
of major depressive disorder with psychotic features, rule
out dysthymia, rule out bipolar disorder, learning disorder
not otherwise specified, and anxiety. (Tr. 17). Despite these
impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Masters retained the
residual functional capacity ("RFC") to:
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but
with the following nonexertional limitations: work limited to
simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a low stress job, which
is defined as few if any workplace changes, and only
occasional decision-making; work can be around coworkers
throughout the day, but with only occasional interaction with
coworkers; and occasional interaction with the public.
(Tr. 20-21). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined that Ms. Masters
could perform her past relevant work as a hand packager, and
that, therefore, she was not disabled. (Tr. 26).
Masters raises three primary arguments on appeal: (1) that
the ALJ’s analysis was deficient under Mascio v.
Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015); (2) that the ALJ
assigned insufficient weight to the opinion of her treating
physician; and (3) that the ALJ erred in assessing her
credibility. Pl. Mot. 7-13. Although Ms. Masters’s
latter arguments lack merit, I concur that Mascio
mandates remand. In so determining, I express no opinion as
to whether the ALJ’s ultimate conclusion that Ms.
Masters was not entitled to benefits is correct or incorrect.
with the unsuccessful arguments, Ms. Masters contends that
the ALJ should have assigned greater weight to the opinions
of her treating physician, Dr. Adler. However, the ALJ
provided a thorough discussion of her evaluation of Dr.
Adler’s opinions, citing to the specific evidence the
ALJ believed to contradict Dr. Adler’s conclusions.
(Tr. 24-26). Specifically, the ALJ relied upon Ms.
Masters’s activities of daily living, her scores on
standardized testing, and her ability to participate fully
and cooperatively in doctors’ appointments, in addition
to internal inconsistencies in Dr. Adler’s opinions,
the relatively sparse medical record kept by Dr. Adler, and
the infrequency of appointments with Dr. Adler. (Tr. 22,
24-26). Ultimately, my review of the ALJ’s decision is
confined to whether substantial evidence, in the record as it
was reviewed by the ALJ, supports the decision and whether
correct legal standards were applied. See Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 404 (1971). Even if there is
other evidence that may support Ms. Masters’s position,
I am not permitted to reweigh the evidence or to substitute
my own judgment for that of the ALJ. See Hays v.
Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Applying
those standards, I conclude that the ALJ’s assignment
of weight was supported by substantial evidence.
Ms. Masters’s challenge to the ALJ’s credibility
determination falls short. The credibility determination made
by an ALJ warrants substantial deference, and should not be
disturbed absent "exceptional circumstances."
Bishop v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 583 Fed.
App’x 65, 68 (4th Cir. 2014) (citing Eldeco, Inc.
v. NLRB, 132 F.3d 1007, 1011 (4th Cir. 1997)). Such
circumstances included cases where the credibility
determination "[was] unreasonable, contradicts other
findings of fact, or is based on an inadequate reason or no
reason at all." Eldeco, 132 F.3d at 1011
(internal quotations omitted). Here, the ALJ cited to the
same evidence as that used to assign less weight to Dr.
Adler’s opinions in concluding that Ms. Masters’s
subjective complaints were not entirely credible. In light of
that substantial evidence, I find no exceptional
circumstances, and therefore affirm the ALJ’s
Masters fares better, however, with her Mascio
argument. In Mascio, the United States Court of
Appeals for the Fourth Circuit determined that remand was
appropriate for three distinct reasons, including, as
pertinent to this case, the inadequacy of the ALJ’s
evaluation of "moderate difficulties" in
concentration, persistence, or pace. 780 F.3d at 638. At step
three of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ determines
whether a claimant’s impairments meet or medically
equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. Listings 12.00 et. seq., pertain to
mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1
§ 12.00. Each listing therein consists of: (1) a brief
statement describing its subject disorder; (2)
"paragraph A criteria, " which consists of a set of
medical findings; and (3) "paragraph B criteria, "
which consists of a set of impairment-related functional
limitations. Id. § 12.00(A). If both the
paragraph A criteria and the paragraph B criteria are
satisfied, the ALJ will determine that the claimant meets the
listed impairment. Id.
B consists of four broad functional areas: (1) activities of
daily living; (2) social functioning; (3) concentration,
persistence, or pace; and (4) episodes of decompensation. The
ALJ employs the "special technique" to rate a
claimant’s degree of limitation in each area, based on
the extent to which the claimant’s impairment
"interferes with [the claimant’s] ability to
function independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a
sustained basis." 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520a(c)(2), 416.920a(c)(2). The ALJ uses a five-point
scale to rate a claimant’s degree of limitation in the
first three areas: none, mild, moderate, marked, or extreme.
Id. §§ 404.1520a(c)(4), 416.920(a)(c)(4).
In order to satisfy paragraph B, a claimant must exhibit
either "marked" limitations in two of the first
three areas, or "marked" limitation in one of the
first three areas with repeated episodes of decompensation.
See, e.g., 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1
§ 12.02. Marked limitations "may arise when several
activities or functions are impaired, or even when only one
is impaired, as long as the degree of limitation is such as
to interfere seriously with [the claimant’s] ability to
function." Id. § 12.00(C).
functional area of "concentration, persistence, or pace
refers to the ability to sustain focused attention and
concentration sufficiently long to permit the timely and
appropriate completion of tasks commonly found in work
settings." Id. § 12.00(C)(3). Social
Security regulations do not define marked limitations in
concentration, persistence, or pace "by a specific
number of tasks that [a claimant is] unable to
complete." Id. The regulations, however, offer
little guidance on the meaning of "moderate"
limitations in the area of concentration, persistence, or
Fourth Circuit remanded Mascio because the
hypothetical the ALJ posed to the VE-and the corresponding
RFC assessment-did not include any mental limitations other
than unskilled work, despite the fact that, at step three of
the sequential evaluation, the ALJ determined that the
claimant had moderate difficulties in maintaining
concentration, persistence, or pace. 780 F.3d at 637-38. The
Fourth Circuit specifically held that it "agree[s] with
other circuits that an ALJ does not account for a
claimant’s limitations in concentration, persistence,
and pace by restricting the hypothetical question to simple,
routine tasks or unskilled work." Id. at 638
(quoting Winschel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631
F.3d 1176, 1180 (11th Cir. 2011)) (internal quotation marks
omitted). In so holding, the Fourth Circuit emphasized the
distinction between the ability to perform simple tasks and
the ability to stay on task, stating that "[o]nly the
latter limitation would account for a claimant’s
limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace."
Id. Although the Fourth Circuit noted that the
ALJ’s error might have been cured by an explanation as
to why the claimant’s moderate difficulties in
concentration, persistence, or pace did not translate into a
limitation in the claimant’s RFC, it held that absent
such an explanation, remand was necessary. Id.
the ALJ found Ms. Masters to have a moderate limitation in
concentration, persistence, and pace. (Tr. 19-20). The
ALJ’s explanation in support of that finding, however,
appears to suggest more of a mild limitation. For example,
the ALJ repeatedly cites to Ms. Masters’s ability to
count change and follow instructions, and to her high scores
on standardized tests designed to measure "cognitive
ability, memory, writing and reading ability and the ability
to follow instructions." (Tr. 19, 23, 24, 25). The ALJ
imposed no limitations in the RFC assessment to address an
inability to sustain concentration, and at no point in the
opinion does the ALJ discuss, for example, an ability to
sustain concentration during simple tasks but difficulties
with complex ones. Thus, this case is readily distinguishable
from Dean v. Comm’r, Social Sec. Admin., No.
SAG-14-1127, 2015 WL 1431548, *1-2 (D. Md. Mar. 26, 2015). In
Dean, the ALJ provided a clear explanation of the
reasons for assessing a moderate limitation and the reasons
why that limitation did not require a particular restriction
in the RFC assessment. Id. No such analysis is
present in this case. Accordingly, remand is warranted so
that the ALJ can fulfill her duty of explanation as to the
reasons for the moderate limitation and the reasons for the
lack of restriction dealing with sustained concentration in
the RFC assessment.
reasons set forth herein, Ms. Masters’s Motion for
Summary Judgment (ECF No. 15) is DENIED and Defendant’s
Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 17) is DENIED. Pursuant
to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the
Commissioner’s judgment is REVERSED IN PART due to
inadequate analysis. The case is REMANDED for ...