United States District Court, D. Maryland
December 19, 2016, Plaintiff Valerie Yeager 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. [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), 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.
Yeager filed her claims on December 19, 2012, alleging a
disability onset date of December 19, 2011. (Tr. 149-59). Her
claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr.
84-91, 92-95). A hearing was held on July 8, 2015, before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 28-41).
Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Yeager was
not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 15-23). The Appeals
Council denied Ms. Yeager's request for review, (Tr.
1-5), so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final,
reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Ms. Yeager suffered from the severe impairments of
“bipolar disorder, adjustment disorder, anxiety
disorder, depressive disorder, and post-traumatic stress
disorder.” (Tr. 17). Despite these impairments, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Yeager retained the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except the work is unskilled. The claimant
requires a sit-stand option, alternatively, provided the
claimant is not off-task more than 10% of the work period.
Communication requirements of hearing and understanding
simple written or oral instructions. Ability to interact with
supervisors, coworkers, and the general public frequently.
Ability to perform work that does not require satisfaction of
production pace. Sustained concentration and persistence of
pace is slight. Ability to understand, remember, and carry
out instructions, which are for simple and routine tasks.
(Tr. 19). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Yeager
could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy and that, therefore, she was not disabled.
Yeager raises two primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the
ALJ's RFC is vague and 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 develop the administrative record. Pl. Mot. 3-15. I
concur with portions of both arguments, as addressed below,
and therefore remand the case. In remanding for additional
explanation, I express no opinion as to whether the ALJ's
ultimate conclusion that Ms. Yeager is not entitled to
benefits is correct.
the ALJ's RFC assessment cryptically states,
“Sustained concentration and persistence of pace is
slight.” (Tr. 19). That statement does not allow the
reader to ascertain whether the ALJ meant that Ms. Yeager has
only a slight ability to sustain concentration and persist at
a given pace, or whether the ALJ intended to indicate that
Ms. Yeager had only a slight limitation in those areas. The
remainder of the opinion does not shed much light on the
situation, since it simply states that the ALJ limited Ms.
Yeager to “reduced concentration and
persistence.” (Tr. 22). While the ALJ included a
limitation prohibiting Ms. Yeager from performing work at a
production pace, which is generally sufficient to address a
moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace,
the additional inclusion of the “slight” language
renders this opinion unclear and does not permit effective
appellate review. On remand, the ALJ should clarify the
meaning of the RFC assessment to permit me to understand
whether the restrictions in the RFC assessment adequately
address Ms. Yeager's functional limitations.
Ms. Yeager also argues that the ALJ did not provide her with
a full and fair hearing. Pl. Mot. 10-15; see 20
C.F.R. § 416.1441. Specifically, Ms. Yeager, who was
unrepresented at the administrative level, contends that the
ALJ (1) conducted an extremely brief hearing; (2) failed to
ensure that all of her medical records were obtained; and (3)
did not order a consultative examination. Pl. Mot. 10-15.
“[I]n pro se cases, ALJs have ‘a duty to
assume a more active role in helping claimants develop the
record.'” Craig, 76 F.3d at 591 (quoting
Sims v. Harris, 631 F.2d 26, 28 (4th Cir. 1980)).
However, “the ALJ is not required to function as the
claimant's substitute counsel, but only to develop a
reasonably complete record.” Crussiah v.
Colvin, No. CIV. TMD 12-2307, 2014 WL 3778615, at *12
(D. Md. July 29, 2014), aff'd, 589 F. App'x
76 (4th Cir. 2014) (internal citation and quotation marks
omitted). Indeed, “[w]here the ALJ fails in his duty to
fully inquire into the issues necessary for adequate
development of the record, and such failure is prejudicial to
the claimant, the case should be remanded.” Marsh
v. Harris, 632 F.2d 296, 300 (4th Cir. 1980).
while I make no assessment of whether the overall length of
the hearing was appropriate, I find that the ALJ failed to
develop a reasonably complete record regarding Ms.
Yeager's medical issues. Ms. Yeager testified at her
hearing in 2015 that she was “currently in therapy at
the health department in Charles County, and my therapist and
my psych doctor said that I shouldn't be working right
now, because of my anxiety and depression.” (Tr. 33).
The ALJ did not ask for the identities of those doctors. Ms.
Yeager again confirmed, later in her testimony, that she was
receiving both therapy and medication for depression,
anxiety, bipolar, and PTSD. (Tr. 34-35). The ALJ asked if the
medicine and therapy “help, ” id., but
did not ask any more specific questions about the treatment
or the residual symptoms. Moreover, at the conclusion of the
hearing, the ALJ asked Ms. Yeager if she knew “of any
outstanding documents, which should be submitted for my
consideration in this case?” (Tr. 40). Ms. Yeager
responded that she did not know. Id.
light of Ms. Yeager's unrepresented status, the fact that
the medical records in the file ended almost two years prior
to the hearing date, and Ms. Yeager's testimony at the
hearing that she was undergoing regular treatment in 2015,
the ALJ did not assume an appropriately active role in
helping Ms. Yeager develop a reasonably complete record.
Accordingly, remand is warranted to allow all of the relevant
medical records to be considered.
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