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Carter v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 7, 2017

Iris N. Carter
Commissioner, Social Security Administration

         Dear Counsel:

         On February 19, 2016, Plaintiff, Ms. Iris N. Carter, petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claim for Title XVI Social Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 17, 20), as well as Ms. Carter's response (ECF No. 21), and I find that no hearing is necessary. 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. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Because I find it necessary to clarify part of the ALJ's decision, 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.

         Ms. Carter initially applied for SSI benefits on June 2, 2008, alleging disability as of January 31, 2006. (Tr. 469-471). That claim was initially denied on September 4, 2008, and then, upon reconsideration, it was denied again on December 3, 2008. (Tr. 116-118, 153-158). Ms. Carter requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and on December 7, 2010, a hearing was held before ALJ Raymond Faby. (Tr. 120-147). Following that hearing, in September 2012, the Appeals Council reviewed Ms. Carter's claim and remanded the case. (Tr. 148-152). Thereafter, in August 2014, a second hearing was held before ALJ Pamela Crawford. Following that hearing, the ALJ issued a written opinion in which she concluded that Ms. Carter was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 41-102, 12-40). The Appeals Council would later deny Ms. Carter's request for review, making ALJ Crawford's decision the final reviewable decision of the Agency. (Tr. 1-5).

         In making her decision on Ms. Carter's claim, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation of disability set forth in the Secretary's regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (1992). Pursuant to those regulations, the “ALJ must consider whether a claimant (1) is working, (2) has a severe impairment, (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment, (4) can return to [her] past work, and (5) if not, whether [she] can perform other work.” Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34-35 (4th Cir. 1992) (internal citations omitted). “Through the fourth step, the burden of production and proof is on the claimant.” Id. (internal citations omitted). If, however, the claimant reaches step five, then “the burden shifts to the Secretary to produce evidence that other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform considering his age, education, and work experience.” Id. (internal citations omitted).

         In this case, the ALJ, at step one, found that Ms. Carter had not engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since June 2, 2008, the date of her application. (Tr. 18). Next, at step two, the ALJ determined that Ms. Carter's “borderline intellectual functioning” and “depression” constituted “severe impairments” under the relevant regulations. (Tr. 18-19). At this step, the ALJ also discussed Ms. Carter's “fibromyalgia, migraines, degenerative joint disease, and substance (marijuana) abuse, ” but found that those “impairments cause [Ms. Carter] no more than minimal limitations in functioning and [were], therefore, considered non-severe.” (Tr. 19). Then, at step three, the ALJ found that Mr. Carter did not have an impairment, or a combination of impairments, that met or medically equaled any of the impairments listed set forth in 20 C.F.R Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 20).

         Before step four of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Ms. Cater had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to “perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: work limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks.” (Tr. 22). Then, at step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Carter “has no past relevant work.” (Tr. 29).

         Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined that given Ms. Carter's age, education, work experience and RFC, she could perform “jobs that exist[ed] in significant numbers in the national economy.” (Tr. 30). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Carter “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since June 2, 2008, the date the application was filed.” (Tr. 30-31).

         On appeal, Ms. Carter contends ALJ's decision erred in three ways: first, the ALJ failed to comply with the Fourth Circuit's decision in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015); second, the ALJ failed to consider her fibromyalgia pursuant to SSR 12-2p; and third, the ALJ failed to properly evaluate whether her impairments met or medically equaled Listing 12.05C. Because Ms. Carter's first argument merits a remand, I will not fully address the concerns set forth in her second argument about the ALJ's consideration of her Fibromyalgia, though I will affirm the ALJ's decision regarding Ms. Carter's third claim relating to Listing 12.05. In so holding, however, the Court emphasizes that it expresses no opinion or judgment as to the ALJ's ultimate decision regarding disability.

         As mentioned above, I must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through correct legal standards. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted). And in accordance with this standard, “[I] do not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [my] judgment for that of the ALJ. Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Id.


         Ms. Carter's first argument concerns the ALJ's evaluation of the severity of her mental impairments and the corresponding RFC assessment. Ms. Carter argues that, in arriving at the RFC assessment, the “ALJ identified the existence of impairments supportive of moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace, ” yet, the ALJ “merely limited [her] to simple, routine, repetitive tasks due to such moderate limitations.” Invoking the Fourth Circuit's decision in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015), Ms. Carter claims that the case should be remanded so that the ALJ can indicate why her moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, and pace did not translate into a different limitation in her RFC assessment.

         In Mascio, the Fourth Circuit held that a remand was necessary where the hypothetical the ALJ posed to the vocational expert and the corresponding RFC assessment failed to 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. 780 F.3d at 637-38. In so holding, the Fourth Circuit agreed with other federal circuit courts that an ALJ does not account for a claimant's limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace by merely restricting the hypothetical question to simple, routine tasks or unskilled work. Id. at 638. Nonetheless, the Fourth Circuit noted that the failure to include additional limitations might not constitute error if the ALJ is able to offer 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. Id. Simply put, the Court in Mascio held that where an ALJ finds moderate difficulties at steps two or three of the sequential evaluation, then he or she is required to either include the appropriate limitations in the RFC that would account for such difficulties, or to explain why no such limitations are necessary.

         In this case, the ALJ assessed Ms. Carter's mental impairments pursuant to the “special mental technique, ” and found that she had “moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace.” (Tr. 21). The ALJ's complete assessment was as follows:

With regard to concentration, persistence or pace, the claimant has moderate difficulties. In claimant's June 2008 function report, the claimant stated she has trouble with her memory and concertation. However, she admitted she can follow spoken instructions if repeated. She also stated she has no problem paying bills, counting change, or handling a savings account, though she testified at her hearing that her oldest son Tyree now handles those tasks for her. (Exhibit 5F and Hearing Testimony). Dr. Celozzi, psychological consultative examiner, stated in August 2008 that, despite her border-line range IQ scores, the claimant was able to understand, remember, and follow simple instructions and is capable of handling her own financial affairs. (Exhibit 6F/2, 6) Accordingly, ...

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