United States District Court, D. Maryland
August 25, 2016, Plaintiff Melody Noel Hammond petitioned
this Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny her claim for Supplemental Security
Income. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 17, 20). 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.
Hammond filed a claim for Supplemental Security Income on
June 4, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of January 1,
2009. (Tr. 248, 249-57). Her claim was denied
initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 81-84, 90-93).
Hearings were held on August 28, 2014 and May 28, 2015,
before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr.
27-45). Following those hearings, on June 22, 2015, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Hammond was not disabled during the
relevant time frame. (Tr. 9-26). The Appeals Council denied
Ms. Hammond's request for review, (Tr. 1-5), so the
ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision
of the Agency.
found that Ms. Hammond suffered from the severe impairments
of “morbid obesity; major depressive disorder; anxiety
disorder; and a history of substance abuse disorder.”
(Tr. 14). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that
Ms. Hammond retained the residual functional capacity
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except the
claimant can lift 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds
occasionally; can stand and walk for four hours (each) out of
an eight hour work day and sit for six hours out of an eight
hour work day; could occasionally kneel, crouch, or crawl;
could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; must avoid
concentrated exposure to hazards and vibrations; is limited
to unskilled, one or two step rote tasks; is limited to
occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the
public; and must stand up once an hour in order to stretch
for five minutes, without leaving the workplace.
(Tr. 16). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms.
Hammond could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in
the national economy and that, therefore, she was not
disabled. (Tr. 19-20).
Hammond raises three primary arguments on appeal: (1) that
the ALJ erred in assigning weight to the opinions of her
treating physician, Dr. Angela Ezumba; (2) that the ALJ
failed to assign weight to the opinion of her child's
father; and (3) that the ALJ improperly evaluated her mental
health limitations under the Fourth Circuit's decision in
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015).
I concur that the ALJ's decision does not comport with
Mascio, and I am therefore remanding the case.
However, I express no opinion as to whether the ALJ's
ultimate conclusion that Ms. Hammond is not entitled to
benefits is correct or incorrect.
with the successful argument, in 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 Ms. Hammond to have moderate
limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, or
pace. (Tr. 15). The entirety of the analysis states:
The undersigned agrees that the claimant is limited to simple
tasks, but also finds that the claimant might not be as
limited as she has alleged. She remains active in care for
her 12 year old son. She was driving through at least 2012.
In 2013, she reported that she was job hunting.
Id. According to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)(2),
the rating of “moderate difficulties” is supposed
to represent the result of application of ...