United States District Court, D. Maryland
Jackie L. Bullion
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;
December 3, 2016, Plaintiff Jackie L. Bullion petitioned this
Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny her claims for benefits. [ECF No. 1].
I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment. [ECF Nos. 15, 16]. 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);
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
Bullion filed claims for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Social Security Income
Benefits (“SSI”) on July 16, 2010, alleging a
disability onset date of July 1, 2009. (Tr. 411-14,
415-19). Ms. Bullion later amended her alleged
disability onset date to July 1, 2010. (Tr. 440). Her claims
were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 272-76,
277-83, 284-90). A hearing was held on December 4, 2012,
before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr.
101-65). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms.
Bullion was not disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 243-61). On
February 12, 2014, the Appeals Council (“AC”)
granted Ms. Bullion's request for further review, vacated
the ALJ's decision, and remanded the case for further
proceedings. (Tr. 262-65). Additional hearings were held on
June 24, 2014, and on September 10, 2014. (Tr. 166-71,
172-236). Following the hearings, the ALJ again determined
that Ms. Bullion was not disabled within the meaning of the
Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr.
69-92). The AC denied Ms. Bullion's request for further
review, (Tr. 1-6), so the ALJ's 2015 decision constitutes
the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Ms. Bullion suffered from the severe impairments
of “cervical and lumbar degenerative disk disease,
asthma/chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity,
anxiety, depression and a bipolar disorder.” (Tr. 72).
Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms.
Bullion would retain the residual functional capacity
lift, carry, push and pull 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds
occasionally, to sit for 6 hours in an 8 hour workday, to
stand and walk, in combination, for 6 hours out of 8, but
with the claimant needing a sit and stand option in any work
due to a need to change positions at least every 30 minutes,
thus resulting in the claimant needing a stool, with the
claimant being able to perform all postural activities on an
occasional basis except the claimant can never climb ladders,
ropes or scaffolds and can possibly balance up to frequently,
with the claimant needing to avoid concentrated exposure to
hazards and to extremes of heat, cold, humidity, fumes,
odors, dust or other airborne irritants, with the claimant
being limited to only occasional interaction with the public
and no more than frequent interaction with co-workers, and
with the claimant being additionally limited to unskilled
(Tr. 76-77). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms.
Bullion could perform several jobs existing in the national
economy and therefore was not disabled. (Tr. 90-92).
Bullion raises two arguments on appeal: (1) that the ALJ
erroneously relied upon the testimony of the VE; and (2) that
the ALJ erroneously assessed her RFC. I agree that the ALJ
failed to include all of Ms. Bullion's limitations in the
hypothetical posed to the VE, and I therefore remand the
case. In remanding for additional explanation, I express no
opinion as to whether the ALJ's ultimate conclusion that
Ms. Bullion is not entitled to benefits is correct.
Ms. Bullion argues that the ALJ erroneously relied upon the
testimony of the VE. Specifically, Ms. Bullion contends that
the ALJ failed to include all of Ms. Bullion's
limitations in her hypothetical question to the VE by not
specifying that Ms. Bullion “would be limited to
simple, 1 and 2 step instructions.” Pl. Mot. 4; see
also (Tr. 89). Ms. Bullion also contends that the ALJ
failed to resolve an apparent conflict between the VE's
testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles
(“DOT”). As an initial matter, an ALJ is afforded
“great latitude in posing hypothetical questions,
” Koonce v. Apfel, 166 F.3d 1209, *5 (4th Cir.
1999) (unpublished table decision), and need only pose those
questions that are based on substantial evidence and
accurately reflect a claimant's limitations. See
Walters v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., Civil No.
SAG-16-415, 2017 WL 211491, at *5 (D. Md. Jan. 18, 2017)
(citing Copeland v. Bowen, 861 F.2d 536, 540-41 (9th
Cir. 1988)). A hypothetical question is unimpeachable if it
adequately reflects the RFC for which the ALJ had sufficient
evidence. See Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 659
(4th Cir. 2005). Yet, “[i]n order for a vocational
expert's opinion to be relevant or helpful, it must be
based upon a consideration of all other evidence in the
record, and it must be in response to proper hypothetical
questions which fairly set out all of [the] claimant's
impairments.” Walker v. Bowen, 889 F.2d 47,
50-51 (4th Cir. 1989) (internal citations omitted).
the ALJ failed to pose a hypothetical question that
adequately set forth all of Ms. Bullion's limitations. In
her RFC assessment, the ALJ concluded: “[Ms. Bullion]
would be limited to simple, 1 and 2 step
instructions; therefore, she would be limited to
unskilled work.” (Tr. 89) (emphasis added). During the
hearing, however, the ALJ framed the hypothetical to the VE
by stating: “[D]ue to her allegations of problems with
concentration or focus or depression, whatever it's
coming from, I'm going to put her at the unskilled work
level.” (Tr. 225). The ALJ's line of questioning,
and the VE's testimony, made no reference to Ms.
Bullion's ability to understand and follow instructions.
The ALJ's hypothetical therefore failed to incorporate
her specific finding that Ms. Bullion was limited to simple,
one- and two-step instructions. See Walker, 889 F.2d
at 51 (holding that remand was appropriate when “the
ALJ did not ask questions that ensured that the vocational
expert knew what the claimant's abilities and limitations
even if the VE somehow understood Ms. Bullion's
limitation to one- and two-step instructions, the ALJ failed
to identify and resolve the apparent conflict between the
VE's testimony and the DOT. See (Tr. 230, 231).
Based on her RFC assessment, Ms. Bullion is limited to
simple, one- and two-step instructions, which are consistent
with the requirements in Level One of DOT's GED Reasoning
Development Scale. See Dictionary of Occupational
Titles, App. C, 1991 WL 688702 (noting that an individual
with Level One reasoning skills can “[a]pply
commonsense understanding to carry out simple one- or
two-step instructions”) (emphasis added). The VE,
however, concluded that Ms. Bullion could work in occupations
that require Level Two reasoning skills, including small
parts assembler, shipping and receiving weigher, and office
helper. (Tr. 91, 230-31); see Dictionary of
Occupational Titles, App. C, 1991 WL 688702 (noting that an
individual with Level Two reasoning skills can “[a]pply
commonsense understanding to carry out detailed but
uninvolved written or oral instructions”)
(emphasis added). Despite Ms. Bullion's express
limitation to one- and two-step instructions, the ALJ
accepted the VE's testimony without providing any
explanation for the apparent conflict with DOT requirements.
See Henderson v. Colvin, 643 F. App'x 273,
276-78 (4th Cir. 2016) (requiring remand due to the ALJ's
failure to resolve an apparent conflict between the
claimant's limitation to “simple one-to-two step
tasks” and the VE's testimony that the claimant
could perform jobs with Level Two reasoning skills requiring
“commonsense understanding to carry out detailed but
uninvolved written or oral instructions”).
Commissioner contends that Ms. Bullion's argument is
unpersuasive, asserting that “courts in this district
have found that reasoning levels of two and three are
consistent with limitations to simple instructions and
unskilled work.” Def. Mot. 6. This argument has no
merit. Although unskilled work is “tantamount to
simple, routine tasks, ” Dardozzi v. Colvin,
Civil No. SAG-16-20, 2016 WL 6085883, at *5 (D. Md. Oct. 18,
2016), the ALJ in the instant case incorporated an express
and precise limitation to simple, one- and two-step
instructions. See Henderson, 643 F. App'x at
276-78; see also Rounds v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec.
Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1002-04 (9th Cir. 2015) (holding
that jobs with Level Two reasoning skills require additional
reasoning and understanding above the ability to complete
one- and two-step tasks). The ALJ's broad reference to
“unskilled work” did not encompass that
limitation. Remand is therefore appropriate.
to the less persuasive argument, Ms. Bullion contends that
the ALJ erroneously performed her RFC assessment by
“fail[ing] to set forth a narrative discussion
[describing] how the evidence supported each
conclusion[.]” Pl. Mot. 10. Specifically, she contends
that the ALJ “did not explain how she determined that
the Plaintiff was limited [sic] the performance of simple, 1
and 2 step instructions.” Id. Social Security
regulations require an ALJ to include “a narrative
discussion of [the] claimant's symptoms and medical
source opinions.” Bell v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec.
Admin., Civil No. SAG-16-1351, 2017 WL 2416906, at *3
(D. Md. June 2, 2017) (citation omitted). In doing so, an ALJ
must “build an accurate and logical bridge from the
evidence to [her] conclusion.” Dolinger v.
Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., Civil No. SAG-16-219, 2017
WL 1078450, at *3 (D. Md. March 22, 2017) (quoting
Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir.
2000), as amended (Dec. 13, 2000)). Here, the ALJ provided
“an accurate and logical bridge” between Ms.
Bullion's limitations and the RFC determination. Most
significantly, in formulating the RFC assessment, the ALJ
thoroughly discussed and evaluated the medical evidence
related to Ms. Bullion's psychological limitations,
including the medical opinions of Dr. Kirmani and Dr. Price.
(Tr. 86-89). In particular, the ALJ noted that Dr. Kirmani
opined that Ms. Bullion “remembered 2 of 3 items after
a 5 minute delay, ” (Tr. 87), “was able to spell
her name backwards, ” id., “could
perform simple addition, subtraction and multiplication
without resort to pencil and paper, ” id., and
“could understand, remember and carry out instructions,
” (Tr. 86). Moreover, Dr. Price opined that Ms. Bullion
“remembered 3 of 5 items immediately afterwards, and 1
of 5 after a delay[, ] . . . could remember a sequence of 4
numbers forwards and 4 backwards[, ] and was able to perform
serial sevens.” (Tr. 87). The ALJ further noted that
Ms. Bullion was “able to handle her own money and make
purchases, activities requiring a modicum of attention,
memory and concentration.” (Tr. 88). Accordingly, I
find that the ALJ properly set forth a narrative discussion,
and remand is not warranted on this basis.
reasons set forth above, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary
Judgment, (ECF No. 15), is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment, (ECF No. 16), is DENIED. Pursuant to
sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the
Commissioner's judgment is REVERSED IN PART due to
inadequate analysis. The case is REMANDED for further
proceedings in accordance with this opinion. The Clerk is
directed to CLOSE this case.
the informal nature of this letter, it should be flagged as