United States District Court, D. Maryland
September 14, 2015, Plaintiff Joseph Bernard Davis petitioned
this Court to review the Social Security
Administration’s final decision to deny his claim for
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (ECF No.
1). I have considered the parties’ cross-motions for
summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 14, 19). 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
parties’ motions, reverse the Commissioner’s
judgment, and remand the case to the Commissioner for further
consideration pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). This letter explains my rationale.
Davis filed a claim for SSI benefits on May 2, 2013, alleging
a disability onset date of March 25, 2013. (Tr. 161-66). His
claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr.
64-71, 73-82). A hearing was held on April 16, 2015, before
an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 33-63).
Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Mr. Davis was
not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 15-26). The Appeals
Council denied Mr. Davis’s request for review. (Tr.
1-6). Thus, the ALJ’s decision constitutes the final,
reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Mr. Davis suffered from the severe impairments of
status-post gunshot wounds to the right lower leg and left
hip, status-post arthroscopy and partial medial meniscectomy
of the left knee, status-post cholecystectomy, hypertension,
obesity, diabetes, ventral hernia, status-post umbilical
hernia repair, intermittent explosive disorder, major
depression, and anxiety. (Tr. 17). Despite these impairments,
the ALJ determined that Mr. Davis retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a) except
he can occasionally operate foot controls with both feet. He
can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop,
kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can never climb ladders, ropes
and scaffolds. He would need to avoid concentrated exposure
to extreme cold, extreme heat, excessive vibration, hazardous
moving machinery and unprotected heights. He can perform
simple, routine and repetitive tasks in a low stress work
environment. Low stress work environment is defined as no
strict production quotas. He can occasionally interact with
the public, coworkers and supervisors.
(Tr. 20). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Mr. Davis
could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy and that, therefore, he was not disabled.
appeal, Mr. Davis raised several arguments pertaining to the
assignments of weight to various medical sources, and further
argued that the ALJ’s analysis did not comport with
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015). I
disagree with Mr. Davis’s Mascio argument, but
I agree that remand is warranted as a result of numerous
errors in the evaluations of the medical opinions. In so
holding, I express no opinion as to whether the ALJ’s
ultimate determination that Mr. Davis was not entitled to
benefits was correct or incorrect.
with the unsuccessful argument, the ALJ’s opinion
comports with the requirements of Mascio. The Fourth
Circuit remanded that case, in relevant part, 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. Mascio, 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. Here, the ALJ expressly limited Mr.
Davis to a “low stress work environment” defined
as “no strict production quotas.” (Tr. 20). That
limitation addresses Mr. Davis’s limitation in staying
on task, and thus there is no Mascio error.
contrast, however, the ALJ’s evaluation of medical
opinions is rife with errors, largely due to the ALJ’s
repeated confusion of Mr. Davis’s treating physician,
Dr. Nathan Scott, with Mr. Davis’s treating
psychiatrist, Dr. Nicholas Scotto. For example, the ALJ
states that Dr. Scotto “carried out several physical
examinations from November 21, 2013 to February 2, 2015,
” when in fact Dr. Scotto, the psychiatrist, was
assessing Mr. Davis’s mental state. (Tr. 353-92).
Although there are some incidental references to Mr.
Davis’s physical health in those reports, Dr. Scotto
did not perform physical examinations of Mr. Davis and was
not focused on his physical health in writing his reports.
The ALJ then attributes Dr. Scotto’s mental health
opinion to Dr. Scott, (Tr. 23), and assigns it “modest
weight” in part because “Dr. Scott never
performed a mental status examination of the claimant and in
his treatment notes he never reported any abnormal mental
clinical signs.” (Tr. 23-24). In contrast, Dr. Scotto
performed regular mental status examinations of Mr. Davis,
and found abnormal mental clinical signs including depression
and rage issues. See, e.g., Tr. 356 (“Patient
had another episode of near rage, fortunately there was no
one present when he got agry [sic]. In the past he has had
numerous episodes of uncontrolled violent acting out, much of
wheich [sic] he has no recollection for.”); Tr. 367
(“Affect: on edge very tense congruent to
mood.”); Tr. 359 (“Depression only mildly
improved multiple medical problems noted patient better but
still residual depression and anxiety.”). The ALJ thus
misstates the evidence in asserting that Dr. Scotto’s
notes “revealed normal findings except for a depressed
effect.” (Tr. 23).
light of this confusion, the ALJ’s evaluation of
medical evidence defies appellate review, and remand is
appropriate to allow the ALJ to provide an accurate
assessment of the reasons for assigning weight to each
physician’s opinion. Moreover, on remand, the ALJ
should make an express assignment of weight to each of the
opinions written by Dr. Scott, and should acknowledge that
Mr. Davis’s case manager, Ms. Megan Reeves, is not an
acceptable medical source when determining the amount of
weight to be assigned to her opinion.
reasons set forth herein, Mr. Davis’s Motion for
Summary Judgment (ECF No. 14) is DENIED and Defendant’s
Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 19) 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 further
proceedings in accordance with this opinion. The Clerk is
directed to CLOSE this case.
the informal nature of this letter, it should be flagged as
an opinion and docketed as an order.
Stephanie A. Gallagher, United ...