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Taylor v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 12, 2018

Lisa Ann Taylor
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration

         Dear Counsel:

         On March 30, 2017, Plaintiff Lisa Ann Taylor petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claim for benefits. [ECF No. 1]. I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.[1] [ECF Nos. 14, 17]. 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); see also Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will deny both motions, reverse the Commissioner's decision in part, and remand the case to the Commissioner for further consideration. This letter explains my rationale.

         Ms. Taylor filed a claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on March 18, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of March 1, 2013. (Tr. 261-62). Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 164-80, 181-200, 201-04, 208-09). A hearing was held on August 26, 2015, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 133-63). Following that hearing, on December 18, 2015, the ALJ determined that Ms. Taylor was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 95-132). The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Ms. Taylor's request for review, (Tr. 1-6), so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Taylor suffered from the severe impairments of “degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, depression, breast cancer status-post bilateral mastectomies and reconstructive surgery, cervicalgia, and obesity.” (Tr. 100). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Taylor retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she is able to complete only simple tasks/work procedures. She is able to make work decisions but is not able to carry out detailed instructions. She can have occasional interaction with the public in positions where there would be little to no change in the work setting.

(Tr. 109). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Taylor could perform several jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 121-22). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Taylor was not disabled. (Tr. 122).

         Ms. Taylor raises several issues on appeal, including that the ALJ: (1) improperly concluded that her hydrocephalus and “peripheral polyneuropathy affecting many joints and other parts of her body, particularly her hands, and associated lymphedema” were non-severe; (2) erroneously performed the Listing analysis, with respect to Listings 1.02, 1.04, 12.02, and 12.04; (3) failed to support her RFC assessment with substantial evidence; (4) failed to properly evaluate her credibility in accordance with Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858 (4th Cir. 2017); (5) failed to adequately perform a function-by-function analysis with respect to her neuromuscular and mental health symptoms, as required by Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015); (6) erred in his assignments of weight to the various medical opinions; and (7) erred in his evaluation of the VE's testimony. Pl. Mot. 7-30. I agree that the ALJ's decision does not comport with Mascio. In so holding, I express no opinion as to whether the ALJ's ultimate conclusion that Ms. Taylor is not entitled to benefits is correct.

         Beginning with her most successful argument, Ms. Taylor argues that the ALJ failed to account for her moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace in the RFC assessment, as required by the Fourth Circuit's holding in Mascio. In Mascio, 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 et seq. pertain to mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 §§ 12.00-12.15 (2015). The relevant listings therein consist of: (1) a brief statement describing a subject dis; (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. § 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.

         Paragraph 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. Id. § 12.00(C). 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. § 404.1520a(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. § 404.1520a(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. § 12.00(C).

         The functional area of “[c]oncentration, 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. § 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” limitations.

         The 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 “[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.

         Here, the ALJ found that Ms. Taylor had “moderate difficulties” in concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 107). In reaching his conclusion, the ALJ cited to Ms. Taylor's examination notes, in which “she was repeatedly noted to be focused, attentive, alert, and fully oriented . . . . [and] did not display significant difficulties with speed or attention.” Id. (citations omitted). The ALJ also noted that “[f]ormal psychological testing showed low average range memory abilities.” (Tr. 108); see (Tr. 1068). In addition to the medical records, the ALJ discussed Ms. Taylor's daily living abilities, noting that Ms. Taylor was able to “focus on crocheting for extended periods of time[;] . . . drive[;] . . . sen[d] her grandson off to school; help[] him with his homework; and . . . pay bills, count change, handle a savings account, and use a checkbook/money orders.” (Tr. 107-08) (citations omitted).

         According to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)(2), the rating of “moderate difficulties” is supposed to represent the result of application of the following technique:

We will rate the degree of your functional limitation based on the extent to which your impairment(s) interferes with your ability to function independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis. Thus, we will consider such factors as the quality and level of your overall functional performance, any episodic limitations, the amount of ...

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