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Moats v. Commissioner, Social Security

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 28, 2016

Dennis Mark Moats
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;

          Dennis Mark Moats, Stacey W. Harris, Esq., Social Security Administration Altmeyer Building.


         Dear Mr. Moats and Counsel:

         On 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.

         Mr. 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.

         The ALJ 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”) to

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 setting.

(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. (Tr. 35-36).

         I have 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.

         As 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, [1] 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.

         This 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. ยง 416.920a(c)(2). Once the technique has been applied, the ALJ is supposed to include the results in ...

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