United States District Court, D. Maryland
LETTER TO COUNSEL
STEPHANIE A. GALLAGHER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
19, 2017, Plaintiff Antoinette Young petitioned this Court to
review the Social Security Administration's
[“SSA”] final decision to deny her claim for
benefits. [ECF No. 1]. I have considered the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment and Ms. Young's reply.
[ECF Nos. 22, 23, 25, 28]. 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 SSA's decision in part,
and remand the case to the SSA for further consideration.
This letter explains my rationale.
Young protectively filed a claim for Supplemental Security
Income (“SSI”) on May 28, 2013, alleging a
disability onset date of December 31, 2003. (Tr. 168-73). Her
claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr.
74-83, 84-95, 96-99, 103-04). A hearing was held on February
2, 2016, before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). (Tr. 41-73). Following the hearing, the
ALJ determined that Ms. Young was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time
frame. (Tr. 26-36). The Appeals Council denied Ms.
Young's request for review, (Tr. 1-7), so the ALJ's
decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the
found that Ms. Young suffered from the severe impairments of
“bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, [and] post-
traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” (Tr. 28). Despite
these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Young retained
the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but
with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant is
limited to understanding, remembering and carrying out very
short, simple instructions. Further, she is able to interact
appropriately with the general public frequently.
(Tr. 30). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Young
could perform several jobs existing in significant numbers in
the national economy. (Tr. 35-36). Accordingly, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Young was not disabled. (Tr. 36).
Young raises two issues on appeal: (1) that the ALJ's
decision did not comport with the Fourth Circuit's
holding in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir.
2015); and (2) that the ALJ erred at step five of the
sequential evaluation. Pl. Mot. 308. 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 Ms. Young is not
entitled to benefits is correct.
Young 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 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. § 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.
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).
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”
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.
the ALJ found that Ms. Young had “moderate
difficulties” in concentration, persistence, or pace.
(Tr. 30). The ALJ noted that Ms. Young “testified to
having concentration problems, and said her memory and
ability to focus were poor.” Id. The ALJ,
however, further observed that Ms. Young “also
testified that she likes to read and spends her days cleaning
the house.” Id. Citing the medical evidence,
the ALJ further noted that Ms. Young's “[m]ental
status examinations have referred to her concentration and
memory as ‘good, '” and that she
“scored 27/30 on a mini-mental status
examination.” Id. Thus, the ALJ found that
“[t]he record supports no more than moderate
limitations in [Ms. Young's] concentration, persistence
and pace.” Id.
to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)(2), the rating of
“moderate difficulties” is supposed to represent