United States District Court, D. Maryland
October 21, 2015, Plaintiff Chad Carroll petitioned this
Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny his 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, 18). I find that no hearing is
necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). 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 judgment of the Commissioner, and remand
the case to the Commissioner for further analysis pursuant to
sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This letter
explains my rationale.
Carroll protectively filed claims for Disability Insurance
Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) on June 16, 2011. (Tr. 218-28). He
alleged a disability onset date of June 6, 2005. Id.
His claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr.
151-59, 161-66). A hearing was held on May 23, 2014, before
an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 28-80).
Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Mr. Carroll
was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 10-27). The Appeals
Council denied Mr. Carroll's request for review, (Tr.
1-5), so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final,
reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Mr. Carroll suffered from the severe impairments
of “bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder.” (Tr.
15). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr.
Carroll retained the residual functional capacity
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but
with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant is
limited to routine, repetitive, unskilled tasks with
occasional interaction with co-workers, supervisors, and the
(Tr. 17). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Mr.
Carroll could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in
the national economy and that, therefore, he was not
disabled. (Tr. 21).
Carroll raises two primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the
ALJ's holding runs afoul of the 4th Circuit's
decision in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th
Cir. 2015); and (2) that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate
the medical opinion of Dr. Cohen. Pl. Mot. 3-7. I concur that
the ALJ's opinion is deficient under Mascio, and
thus recommend remand to allow compliance with that decision.
In recommending remand for additional explanation, I express
no opinion as to whether the ALJ's ultimate conclusion
that Mr. Carroll is not entitled to benefits is correct or
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.
Id. 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. The relevant listings
therein consist of: (1) a brief statement describing a
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. at
§ 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. § 404.1620a(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. § 404.1620a(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. at § 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. at § 12.00(C)(3). Social
Security regulations do not define 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”
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. 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.
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.
instant case, the ALJ found Mr. Carroll to have moderate
limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, or
pace. (Tr. 16). The entirety of the analysis states,
“The claimant has reported issues in this area, but the
record indicates that his memory and judgment are intact.
Notes from the consultative examinations indicate that the
claimant is capable of following and understanding simple
instructions.” (Tr. 16). According to 20 CFR §
404.1520a(c)(2), the rating of “moderate
difficulties” is supposed to represent the result of
application of the following technique:
We will rate the degree of your functional limitation based
on the extent to which your impairment(s) interferes with
your ability to function independently, appropriately,
effectively, and on a sustained basis. Thus, we will consider
such factors as the quality and level of your overall
functional performance, any episodic limitations, the amount
of supervision or assistance you require, and the settings in
which you are able to function.
20 CFR § 404.1520a(c)(2). Once the technique has been
applied, the ALJ is supposed to include the results in the
opinion as follows:
At the administrative law judge hearing and Appeals Council
levels, the written decision must incorporate the pertinent
findings and conclusions based on the technique. The decision
must show the significant history, including examination and
laboratory findings, and the functional limitations that were
considered in reaching a conclusion about the severity of the
mental impairment(s). The decision must include a specific