United States District Court, D. Maryland
April 26, 2016, Plaintiff Rosita Thomas petitioned this Court
to review the Social Security Administration's
(“SSA”) final decision to deny her claims for
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). (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.
Thomas filed her claims for benefits in December, 2009,
alleging a disability onset date of April 11, 2003. (Tr.
300-05). Her claims were denied initially and on
reconsideration. (Tr. 172-79, 186-89). A hearing was held on
Novmeber 22, 2011, before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). (Tr. 56-92). Following the hearing, the
ALJ determined that Ms. Thomas was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 149-64). On April
16, 2013, the Appeals Council (“AC”) issued a
decision remanding the case for further consideration. (Tr.
165-69). A second hearing was held on April 1, 2014. (Tr.
93-144). Following that hearing, the ALJ again determined
that Ms. Thomas was not disabled. (Tr. 37-55). This time, the
AC denied Ms. Thomas's request for review, (Tr. 7-12), so
the ALJ's 2014 decision constitutes the final, reviewable
decision of the Agency.
decision, the ALJ found that Ms. Thomas suffered from the
severe impairments of “seizure disorder, major
depressive disorder, diabetes, obesity, degenerative disc
disease, and hypertension.” (Tr. 43). Despite these
impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Thomas retained the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform light work, as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b), including the ability to occasionally lift and/or
carry 20 pounds; frequently lift and/or carry 10 pounds;
stand and/or walk for a total of six hours in an eight-hour
workday; sit for a total of six hours in an eight-hour
workday; push and/or pull, including the operation of hand
and/or foot controls, as much as they can lift and/or carry;
occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, and
crouch; never crawl; no exposure to hazards such as
unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts; retains the
ability to understand, remember and carry out instructions
concerning simple tasks; occasional interaction with
coworkers; no interaction with the general public; can make
simple decisions constantly and complex decisions
(Tr. 44-45). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Thomas
could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy and that, therefore, she was not disabled.
Thomas raises several arguments on appeal: (1) that the ALJ
committed error under Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632
(4th Cir. 2015); and (2) that the ALJ did not adequately
explain his assignments of weight to various medical sources.
I concur that the ALJ committed an error under
Mascio, and remand is therefore appropriate. In so
holding, I express no opinion regarding whether the ALJ's
ultimate conclusion that Ms. Thomas is not disabled is
correct or incorrect.
Mascio, the Fourth Circuit 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.”
780 F.3d at 638 (internal quotation marks and citations
omitted) (joining the Third, Seventh, Eighth, and Eleventh
Circuits). The Fourth Circuit indicated that an ALJ might
cure his error by explaining why a step three finding of a
moderate difficulty in concentration, persistence, or pace
does not translate into a limitation in a claimant's RFC.
Id. Like in Mascio, the ALJ in this case
determined at step three that Ms. Thomas suffered from
moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace,
but in assessing Ms. Thomas's RFC, the ALJ stated that
she “retains the ability to understand, remember and
carry out instructions concerning simple tasks[, ]…can
make simple decisions constantly and complex decisions
occasionally.” (Tr. 44, 45).
other cases confronted by this Court in the wake of
Mascio, it seems entirely possible that the ALJ may
have erred by finding moderate, rather than mild or no,
difficulties at step three. See, e.g., Powell v.
Colvin, Civil No. SAG-14-3233 (D. Md. Jun. 12, 2015).
The ALJ's sole proffered reason for finding moderate
difficulties (specifically “intermittent reports of
medication side effects such as tiredness”) seems to
support the notion that Ms. Thomas has only mild problems
sustaining concentration. (Tr. 44). However, the ALJ's
RFC analysis did not specifically address his evaluation of
Ms. Thomas's ability to sustain concentration, despite
noting that two State agency psychological consultants found
“moderate limitations in sustained concentration and
persistence.” (Tr. 48). While the Commissioner suggests
that any Mascio error would be harmless, the
discussion is simply insufficient to allow me to assess how
the ALJ reconciled the apparently contradictory evidence
regarding Ms. Thomas's ability to work consistently over
an eight-hour workday. See Mascio, 780 F.3d
at 637 (declining to hold that the ALJ's lack of
reasoning constituted harmless error “[b]ecause we are
left to guess about how the ALJ arrived at his
conclusions”). I must therefore remand the case to the
Commissioner for further analysis consistent with the Fourth
Circuit's mandate in Mascio.
respect to the assignments of weight to the medical sources,
while they would not likely have justified remand standing
alone, I note that the ALJ's analysis is not extensive.
For example, as to the State agency consultants, the ALJ
assigned them “limited weight” because
“they did not have the benefit of viewing the complete
record or interviewing the claimant” without explaining
how those steps might have altered their conclusions. (Tr.
48). On remand, then, the ALJ should review the assignment of
weight to each medical source and determine whether further
explanation is warranted.
reasons set forth above, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary
Judgment (ECF No. 15) is DENIED and Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 18) 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