United States District Court, D. Maryland
LETTER TO COUNSEL
9, 2016, Plaintiff Sharon Whitfill petitioned this Court to
review the Social Security Administration's final
decision to deny her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits
and Supplemental Security Income. (ECF No. 1). I have
considered the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment, and Ms. Whitfill's reply. (ECF Nos. 17, 20,
21). 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 Ms. Whitfill's motion, grant the
Commissioner's motion, and affirm the Commissioner's
judgment pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). This letter explains my rationale.
Whitfill filed claims for Disability Insurance Benefits and
Supplemental Security Income in September, 2011, alleging a
disability onset date of August 24, 2010. (Tr. 255-63). Her
claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr.
168-72, 176-79). Ms. Whitfill's original request for a
hearing was dismissed, (Tr. 125-29), but following an
original appeal to this Court, the Commissioner agreed to
send her case back for a hearing. (Tr. 139-40). A hearing was
held on December 4, 2014, before an Administrative Law Judge
("ALJ"). (Tr. 35-70). Following the hearing, the
ALJ determined that Ms. Whitfill was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time
frame. (Tr. 8-28). The Appeals Council denied Ms.
Whitfill's request for review, (Tr. 3-7), so the
ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision
of the Agency.
found that Ms. Whitfill suffered from the severe impairments
of "affective disorder, obesity, and contusion of the
right hand." (Tr. 13). Despite these impairments, the
ALJ determined that Ms. Whitfill retained the residual
functional capacity ("RFC") to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except that the claimant cannot crawl or climb
ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; however, she can perform all
other postural movements frequently. Regarding manipulative
limitations, she can engage in frequent but not constant or
repeated handling, fingering, and feeling. She is limited to
simple, repetitive, and routine tasks, with no more than
occasional and superficial interaction with the public.
16). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert
("VE"), the ALJ determined that Ms. Whitfill could
perform work existing in significant numbers in the national
economy and that, therefore, she was not disabled. (Tr. 21).
Whitfill contends on appeal that the ALJ did not
appropriately apply the special technique for evaluating
mental impairments, and thus that the ALJ's opinion runs
afoul of the Fourth Circuit's recent decision in
Patterson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 846
F.3d 656 (4th Cir. 2017). While I agree that the ALJ erred in
evaluating the opinion evidence regarding Ms. Whitfill's
mental impairments, I conclude that the error was harmless
and that remand is unwarranted for the reasons addressed
background, 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. Id. at
§ 12.00. Each listing therein consists of: (1) a brief
statement describing its 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 a "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. §§
404.1520a(c)(2), 416.920a(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 §§ 404.1520a(c)(4), 416.920a(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 your ability to function."
Id. at § 12.00(C).
I note that this case is readily distinguishable from
Patterson, in which the ALJ utterly failed to apply
the special technique to the evaluation of the claimant's
mental impairments. See Patterson, 846 F.3d at 662.
Instead, in this case, at step three, the ALJ applied the
special technique and found that Ms. Whitfill has no
restriction in activities of daily living, moderate
difficulties in social functioning, and mild difficulties in
concentration, persistence, or pace, and no episodes of
decompensation. (Tr. 14-15). Due to the ALJ's analysis, I
am able to review and evaluate the merits of the ALJ's
application of the special technique. Moreover, a change in
status in any single functional area, even to "marked
limitations, " would not result in Ms. Whitfill having
met or equaled a listing.
Whitfill argues that the ALJ erred by not expressly
addressing the conclusions of two non-examining State agency
physicians, who found that she suffered "moderate"
difficulties, instead of "mild" difficulties, in
the area of concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 76, 89,
105, 117). I agree that the ALJ should have addressed those
medical source conclusions, and that the failure to address
them constitutes error. However, it is clear that the ALJ did
consider the exhibits containing those non-examining State
agency physicians' opinions, and expressly assessed the
physicians' conclusions regarding Ms. Whitfill's
physical impairments. (Tr. 20). Moreover, in his application
of the special technique, the ALJ provided a fact-based
analysis of Ms. Whitfill's abilities in the area of
concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 15). The ALJ noted
that "objective evidence indicates that the
claimant's abilities to maintain concentration,
persistence, or pace are only mildly affected, " citing
to medical records from two separate consultative
examinations at which Ms. Whitfill obtained perfect scores on
Mini-Mental State Exams, among other findings. Id.
In light of the substantial evidence cited by the ALJ to
support his finding of only "mild difficulties, "
the fact that even a finding of "moderate
difficulties" would not mean that Ms. Whitfill met or
equaled a listing, and the fact that the ALJ clearly
reviewed, although did not discuss, the findings in question,
I find that the ALJ's error in this particular case was
harmless, as it did not affect the ultimate outcome of the
analysis. See Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 407
reasons set forth herein, Ms. Whitfill's Motion for
Summary Judgment (ECF No. 17) is DENIED and Defendant's
Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 20) is GRANTED. The
Commissioner's judgment is AFFIRMED pursuant to sentence
four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Clerk is directed to
CLOSE this case.
the informal nature of this letter, it should be flagged as