United States District Court, D. Maryland
CHARLES JONES, JR.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
STEPHANIE A. GALLAGHER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
to Standing Order 2014-01, the above-referenced case has been
referred to me for review of the Commissioner's
dispositive motion, [ECF No. 15], and to make recommendations
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule
301.5(b)(ix). [ECF No. 4]. Plaintiff Charles Jones, Jr., who
appears pro se, did not file a motion for summary
judgment or a response to the Commissioner's Motion for
Summary Judgment. I have considered the Commissioner's
Motion. [ECF No. 15]. 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 recommend that the Court
deny the Commissioner's motion, that the Court reverse
the Commissioner's decision in part pursuant to sentence
four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and that the Court remand
the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings in
accordance with this Report and Recommendations.
Jones filed claims for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) on September 2, 2013, originally alleging
a disability onset date of March 1, 2013. (Tr. 167-74). His
claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr.
100-04, 107-10). A hearing, at which Mr. Jones was
represented by counsel, was held on April 14, 2016, before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 26-61).
Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Mr. Jones was
not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 11-20). The Appeals
Council denied Mr. Jones's request for review, (Tr. 1-5),
so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable
decision of the Agency.
found that Mr. Jones suffered from the severe impairments of
“depression, anxiety, and hypertension.” (Tr.
13). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr.
Jones retained the residual functional capacity
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except the claimant can lift and carry 20 pounds
occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, and can stand, walk,
and sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. The claimant can
occasionally climb ramps or stairs, occasionally climb
ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, occasionally stoop,
occasionally kneel, occasionally crouch and occasionally
crawl. The claimant can perform simple, routine and
repetitive tasks. The claimant can have occasional
interaction with the public and coworkers.
(Tr. 15-16). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Mr. Jones
could perform his past relevant work as an assembly line
worker and that, therefore, he was not disabled. (Tr. 19-20).
carefully reviewed the ALJ's opinion and the entire
record. See Elam v. Barnhart, 386 F.Supp.2d 746, 753
(E.D. Tex. 2005) (mapping an analytical framework for
judicial review of a pro se action challenging an
adverse administrative decision, including: (1) examining
whether the Commissioner's decision generally comports
with regulations, (2) reviewing the ALJ's critical
findings for compliance with the law, and (3) determining
from the evidentiary record whether substantial evidence
supports the ALJ's findings). I have also considered all
of the arguments raised by Mr. Jones's prior attorney in
his May 13, 2016 letter to the Appeals Council. (Tr. 250-51).
For the reasons described below, substantial evidence
supports the ALJ's decision.
proceeded in accordance with applicable law at all five steps
of the sequential evaluation. The ALJ ruled in Mr.
Jones's favor at step one and determined that he has not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since his application
date. (Tr. 11); see 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ then considered the
severity of each of the impairments that Mr. Jones claimed
prevented him from working. (Tr. 13); see 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Notably, the ALJ found Mr.
Jones's “mild obstructive sleep apnea,
sleep-related hallucinations, arthritis in the knees, chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and HIV” to be
non-severe. (Tr. 13). The ALJ noted that those impairments
would have no more than minimal impact on Mr. Jones's
ability to perform basic work activities. Id.
However, after finding at least one of Mr. Jones's
impairments severe, id., the ALJ continued with the
sequential evaluation and considered, in assessing Mr.
Jones's RFC, the extent to which his impairments limited
his ability to work.
three, the ALJ determined that Mr. Jones's severe mental
health impairments did not meet, or medically equal, the
criteria of any listings. (Tr. 14-15). In particular, the ALJ
considered the specific requirements of Listings 12.04
(affective disorders), and 12.06 (anxiety related disorders).
See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1,
§§ 12.04, 12.06. Those Listings require proof of
the same set of “paragraph B” criteria, and a
claimant would need to show at least two areas of marked
difficulty, or repeated episodes of decompensation, to meet a
listing. Here, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Jones had only
“mild” restriction in activities of daily living
and in social functioning, “moderate”
difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace, and no
episodes of decompensation of extended duration. (Tr. 14-15).
The ALJ supported those assessments with citations to the
evidence of record. Id. Accordingly, the ALJ did not
err in his conclusion.
considering Mr. Jones's RFC, the ALJ summarized his
subjective complaints from his hearing testimony. (Tr.
16-17). The ALJ also reviewed a Third-Party Function Report
from Mr. Jones's sister, and assigned weight to the
opinions of various consultative examiners and treating
physicians. (Tr. 17-18). The ALJ did not, at any point in the
opinion, provide a summary or review of Mr. Jones's
medical records. The ALJ, however, placed great weight in Mr.
Jones's self-reported activities of daily living, which
demonstrated a relatively high degree of independence. (Tr.
14-17). The ALJ acknowledged that two of Mr. Jones's
treating physicians, Drs. Gregg and Saeed, found limitations
in his attention, concentration, and ability to perform
activities within a schedule, although the ALJ assigned only
“little weight” or “some weight” to
those respective opinions. (Tr. 19).
flaw in the ALJ's reasoning lies in the dictates of
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015). In
that case, 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.
Id. at 638. That functional area “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. § 12.00(C)(3). Social Security regulations
do not define marked 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” limitations in the area of
concentration, persistence, or pace.
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 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 “only 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.
the ALJ cited to medical evidence supporting the conclusion
that Mr. Jones has moderate limitations in concentration,
persistence, or pace. (Tr. 16, 19). However, contrary to
Mascio, the ALJ did not impose any RFC restriction
to address the limitation. (Tr. 16) (limiting Mr. Jones only
to “simple, routine and repetitive tasks”).
Moreover, in questioning Mr. Jones about his prior work on an
assembly line, the ALJ did not ask any questions regarding
the job requirements for maintaining a particular pace, and
did not explore whether more than occasional interaction with
co-workers was required. To the contrary, the ALJ noted that
in Mr. Jones's own testimony about his assembly line job,
he stated that he was terminated because he “was told
he was slowing down, ” id., which would
indicate a potential issue with persistence and pace that
might preclude him from sustaining a like position. Finally,
when presented with a hypothetical including a restriction
that the work environment be “free of fast paced
production requirements, ” the VE did not identify the
assembly line position as a potential job. (Tr. 53). Thus, in
light of Mascio and the apparent discrepancy between
the demands of Mr. Jones's past relevant ...