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Wilson v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 16, 2017

Samuel Wilson
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;

          LETTER TO COUNSEL

          Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge

         Dear Counsel:

         On 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.

         Mr. Wilson filed a claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on May 23, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of March 1, 2012.[1] (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.

         The ALJ 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).

         Mr. 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.[2]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.

         Beginning 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.

         Paragraph 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).

         The 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” limitations.

         The 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.

         In the 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 of ...

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