United States District Court, D. Maryland
LETTER TO COUNSEL
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge
January 20, 2016, Plaintiff Deborah Kuhn petitioned this
Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny her claims for Disability Insurance
Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”). (ECF No. 1). I have considered the
parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, and Ms.
Kuhn's reply. (ECF Nos. 17, 21, 22). 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 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
previous unsuccessful application, Ms. Kuhn filed her claims
for benefits on February 5, 2010. (Tr. 273-80). Her claims
were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 166-72,
173-76). Hearings were held on May 17, 2012 and November 6,
2012 before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).
(Tr. 40-106). Following those hearings, the ALJ determined
that Ms. Kuhn was not disabled within the meaning of the
Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr.
139-59). The Appeals Council granted Ms. Kuhn's request
for review and remanded the case to an ALJ. (Tr. 160-63). A
new ALJ held a new hearing on July 28, 2014. (Tr. 107-34).
Following that hearing, on September 9, 2014, the ALJ issued
a partially favorable decision granting benefits as of May
26, 2014, but denying benefits prior to that date. (Tr.
23-33). Thus, the ALJ's 2014 decision constitutes the
final, reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Ms. Kuhn suffered from the severe impairments of
“narcolepsy, cataplexy, asthma, conversion disorder,
mood disorder, anxiety disorder, and thyroid disorder.”
(Tr. 26). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that
Ms. Kuhn retained the residual functional capacity
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except she must avoid exposure to excessive dust,
fumes, odors, and gases. She cannot engage in climbing and
must avoid exposure to heights or hazards. She can engage in
only occasional contact with co-workers, supervisors, and/or
the general public, due to limitations in social functioning.
She is further limited to only simple, routine, repetitive
tasks due to limitations in concentration, persistence or
(Tr. 27). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that, prior to
May 26, 2014, Ms. Kuhn could perform work existing in
significant numbers in the national economy and that,
therefore, she was not disabled. (Tr. 31-32).
Kuhn advances two primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the
ALJ failed to comply with the dictates of Mascio v.
Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015); and (2) that the
ALJ did not adequately apply the special technique for
evaluation of mental impairments. I agree. In so
holding, I express no opinion as to whether the ALJ's
ultimate conclusion that Ms. Kuhn was not entitled to
benefits is correct or incorrect.
the special technique for evaluating mental impairments is
set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a. The ALJ “must
first evaluate [the claimant's] pertinent symptoms,
signs, and laboratory findings to determine whether [he or
she] ha[s] a medically determinable mental
impairment(s).” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(b)(1). The
ALJ must “then rate the degree of functional limitation
resulting from the impairment(s)” in four broad
functional areas. Id. at §§
416.920a(b)(2), 416.920a(c). The ALJ must document the
application of the technique in the hearing decision,
incorporating pertinent findings and conclusions, and
documenting the significant history and functional
limitations that were considered. Id. at §
416.920a(e)(4). In this case, however, the ALJ conclusorily
stated that Ms. Kuhn had “mild restriction in
activities of daily living; moderate difficulties in
maintaining social functioning; moderate difficulties in
maintaining concentration, persistence or pace; and no
episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration.”
(Tr. 26). The ALJ provided no explanation or citation to any
evidence to document how those conclusions were reached.
Clearly, then, the application of the special technique was
the ALJ's analysis runs afoul of Mascio v.
Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015). As noted, the ALJ
made a finding of “moderate difficulties” in the
area of concentration, persistence or pace, without any
explanation. (Tr. 26). Ultimately, the ALJ imposed a RFC
restriction that Ms. Kuhn was “limited to only simple,
routine, repetitive tasks due to limitations in
concentration, persistence or pace.” (Tr. 27). In
Mascio, the Fourth Circuit agreed “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.” 780 F.3d at 638 (internal
citations and quotation marks omitted). The ALJ provided no
specific discussion of Ms. Kuhn's ability to sustain work
anywhere in the opinion. Accordingly, remand is warranted for
the ALJ to explain the basis for his application of the
special technique and to explain his findings in accordance
reasons set forth herein, Ms. Kuhn's Motion for Summary
Judgment (ECF No. 17) is DENIED and Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 21) 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