United States District Court, D. Maryland
Mark Moats, Stacey W. Harris, Esq., Social Security
Administration Altmeyer Building.
Mr. Moats and Counsel:
March 8, 2016, Plaintiff Dennis Mark Moats, who appears
pro se, 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 both
parties' submissions. [ECF Nos. 2, 15, 16, 25]. 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 the Commissioner's motion, reverse the
Commissioner's decision in part, and remand the case to
the Commissioner for further consideration. This letter
explains my rationale.
Moats filed his claims for benefits on June 26, 2012,
alleging a disability onset date of May 31, 2010. (Tr.
189-99). His claims were denied initially and on
reconsideration. (Tr. 141-45, 152-53). A hearing was held on
September 19, 2014, before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). (Tr. 41-65). Following the hearing, on
December 5, 2014, the ALJ determined that Mr. Moats was not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during
the relevant time frame. (Tr. 24-40). The Appeals Council
denied Mr. Moats's request for review, (Tr. 1-6), so the
ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision
of the Agency.
found that Mr. Moats suffered from the severe impairments of
rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and anxiety. (Tr. 29).
Despite those impairments, the ALJ found that Mr. Moats
retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) that requires only simple, repetitive tasks with a
training duration of up to one month; occasional interaction
with the public, co-workers, and supervisors; and a low
stress environment defined as occasional changes to the work
(Tr. 31). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Mr. Moats
could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy and that, therefore, he was not disabled.
considered Mr. Moats's case under the dictates of
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015), a
Social Security appeal from the Eastern District of North
Carolina. Because the ALJ's evaluation of Mr. Moats's
“moderate limitation” in concentration,
persistence, or pace was inadequate under Mascio,
remand is warranted. In so holding, I express no opinion as
to whether the ALJ's ultimate determination that Mr.
Moats was not entitled to benefits was correct or incorrect.
background, on March 18, 2015, the United States Court of
Appeals for the Fourth Circuit published its opinion in
Mascio. The Fourth Circuit determined that remand
was appropriate for three distinct reasons, one of which is
relevant to the analysis of this case. Specifically, the
Fourth Circuit found that 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.
case is partially distinguishable from Mascio. The
entirety of the step three analysis states:
With regard to concentration, persistence or pace, the
claimant has moderate difficulties. The claimant reported
that he finished what he started and that he was
“ok” at following written instructions. He stated
that he sometimes forgot spoken instructions (Exhibit 3E).
The medical evidence of record documents some findings of
impaired concentration and disorganized thoughts, but these
findings are not consistent throughout the record (Exhibits
6F and 8F). The claimant reported activities of daily living
that require some concentration including driving and caring
for his elderly aunt and his mother with Alzheimer's
(Exhibits 3E, 8F, and testimony).
(Tr. 30-31). That analysis does not permit this Court to
understand the precise parameters of the difficulties the ALJ
believed Mr. Moats to have. According to 20 C.F.R. §
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.
See also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(c)(2). Once the
technique has been applied, the ALJ is supposed to include
the results in ...