United States District Court, D. Maryland
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge.
November 20, 2016, Plaintiff Wayne Allen Layton petitioned
this Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny his claims for benefits. [ECF No. 1].
I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment. [ECF Nos. 17, 18]. 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.
Layton protectively filed a claim for Disability Insurance
Benefits ("DIB") on June 13, 2010, alleging a
disability onset date of August 5, 2009. (Tr. 62, 343-44).
Mr. Layton later filed a claim for Supplemental Security
Income ("SSI") on February 19, 2015, and amended
his alleged disability onset date to May 31, 2013. (Tr.
379-86). His claim was denied initially and on
reconsideration. (Tr. 144-59, 172-88). A hearing was held on
March 1, 2013, before an Administrative Law Judge
("ALJ"). (Tr. 102-43). Following the hearing, the
ALJ determined that Mr. Layton was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time
frame. (Tr. 197-210). On August 26, 2014, the Appeals Council
("AC") granted Mr. Haiber's request for review,
vacated the ALJ's decision, and remanded the case for
further proceedings. (Tr. 216-18). Another hearing was held
on April 9, 2015. (Tr. 57-101). Following the hearing, the
ALJ again determined that Mr. Layton was not disabled within
the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant
time frame. (Tr. 37-56). The AC denied Mr. Layton's
request for further review, (Tr. 1-7), so the ALJ's 2015
decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the
found that Mr. Layton suffered from the severe impairments of
"mild lumbar degenerative disc disease, mood disorder,
anxiety disorder, and polysubstance dependence/abuse."
(Tr. 41). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that
Mr. Layton would retain the residual functional capacity
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except he is further limited as follows:
occasionally climbing ramps or stairs (never ladders, ropes,
or scaffolds), balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and
crawling; and avoiding concentrated exposure to respiratory
irritants. In addition, the claimant is limited to carrying
out simple tasks in two-hour increments (which can be
accommodated by regularly scheduled breaks); having
occasional interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the
general public; and adapting to simple changes in a routine
(Tr. 45). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined that Mr. Layton
could perform several jobs existing in the national economy
and therefore was not disabled. (Tr. 48-50).
appeal, Mr. Layton argues that the ALJ's holding runs
afoul of the Fourth Circuit's decision in Mascio v.
Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015). I agree that the
ALJ's decision does not comport with Mascio, and
that remand is therefore required. In remanding for
additional explanation, I express no opinion as to whether
the ALJ's ultimate conclusion that Mr. Layton is not
entitled to benefits is correct or incorrect.
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.
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 12.00-12.15 pertain
to mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1
§§ 12.00-12.15. 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).
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
§§ 12.04, 12.06. 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
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. 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 Winschelv. Comm'r o/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 that Mr. Layton had "no more
than moderate difficulties [in concentration, persistence, or
pace] if he stopped substance abuse and followed his
recommended treatment." (Tr. 44). The ALJ noted that Mr.
Layton's "mental status examinations and GAF scores
significantly improve" with treatment and abstinence
from drugs and alcohol, and that, during both of his
administrative hearings, Mr. Layton "was able to follow
along and answer questions without any lapse in
attention." Id. The ALJ also noted that Mr.
Layton is "able to read and write, " and
"writes things down so he does not forget them."
Id. Additionally, the ALJ observed that the evidence
did not show that Mr. Layton had "any significant
thought disorder or cognitive deficit when sober."
Id. According ...