United States District Court, D. Maryland
LETTER TO COUNSEL
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge
September 23, 2016, Plaintiff Samuel Wilson petitioned this
Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny his claim for Disability Insurance
Benefits. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 14, 15). 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.
Wilson filed a claim for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) on May 23, 2012, alleging a disability
onset date of March 1, 2012. (Tr. 246-49). His claim was
denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 135-38,
141-42). A hearing was held on April 2, 2015, before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 42-67).
Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Mr. Wilson was
not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 19-41). The Appeals
Council denied Mr. Wilson's request for review, (Tr.
1-7), so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final,
reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Mr. Wilson suffered from the severe impairments of
“gout, obesity, hepatitis C, history of alcohol and
cocaine dependence, depression, and a specific learning
disorder.” (Tr. 24). Despite these impairments, the ALJ
determined that Mr. Wilson retained the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) with
exceptions. The claimant can lift and carry twenty pounds
occasionally and ten pounds frequently. In an eight-hour
workday, the claimant can stand for six hours, walk for six
hours, and sit for six hours. He can occasionally climb ramps
and stairs, balance, kneel, crawl, stoop, and crouch. The
claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme
temperatures and hazardous machinery and avoid working at
unprotected heights, climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds,
and work on vibrating surfaces. The claimant is able to
understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions in
repetitive, unskilled work.
(Tr. 27). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Mr. Wilson
could perform his past relevant work and that, therefore, he
was not disabled. (Tr. 35-37).
Wilson raises two primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the
ALJ's holding runs afoul of the Fourth 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 opinion of the treating physician, Dr.
Speedie.Pl. Mot. 6-13. I concur that the ALJ's
opinion is deficient under Mascio, and therefore
remand to allow compliance with that decision. In remanding
for additional explanation, I express no opinion as to
whether the ALJ's ultimate conclusion that Mr. Wilson is
not entitled to benefits is correct or incorrect.
with 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.
Mascio, 780 F.3d 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. at § 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. Wilson to have moderate
difficulties maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace.
(Tr. 26). The entirety of the analysis states, “[W]hile
mental status examinations have been fairly benign, [Mr.
Wilson] has endorsed problems with memory and concentration.
Testing has been suggestive of a learning disorder and [Mr.
Wilson] has reported some difficulty in his college classes.
In considering the record as a whole, the undersigned finds
that [Mr. Wilson] has a moderate limitation here and should
be limited to unskilled work.” Id. 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