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Maddox v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 12, 2018

Alina Kae Maddox
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;[1]

         Dear Counsel:

         On June 5, 2017, Plaintiff Alina Kae Maddox petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's (“SSA's”) final decision to deny her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits. [ECF No. 1]. I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. [ECF Nos. 17, 20]. 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 SSA, and remand the case to the SSA for further analysis pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This letter explains my rationale.

         Ms. Maddox filed her claim for benefits on March 11, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of May 23, 2013. (Tr. 220-26). Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 128-31, 136-37). A hearing was held on March 30, 2016, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 30-94). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Maddox was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 9-29). The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Ms. Maddox'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. Maddox suffered from the severe impairments of “degenerative disc disease, psoriatic arthritis/seronegative arthritis/spondyloarthritis, fibromyalgia, depression, personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” (Tr. 14). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Maddox would retain the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant was limited to standing and/or walking for four hours in an eight hour workday. Ms. Maddox could frequently climb steps or ramps, balance on a moving platform, stoop, kneel, or crawl. She could occasionally crouch, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding. The claimant was limited to no more than occasional fingering. She could frequently be exposed to extremes of cold, wetness, and humidity. However, she could not be exposed to dangerous workplace hazards, such as unprotected heights or uncovered moving industrial machinery. Additionally, she could not perform commercial driving, defined as driving requiring a commercial driver's license. Mentally, the claimant was limited to simple and routine tasks involving simple work-related decision making. She could have frequent contact with co-workers and time off-task could be accommodated by normal work breaks.

(Tr. 17). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Maddox could perform her past relevant work as a school bus monitor and, in the alternative, several other jobs existing in the national economy. (Tr. 23-24). The ALH therefore concluded that Ms. Maddox was not disabled. (Tr. 25).

         Ms. Maddox raises three primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the ALJ did not provide an adequate explanation to support the limitations assessed in her RFC; (2) that the ALJ's holding runs afoul of the Fourth Circuit's decision in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015); and (3) that the ALJ did not evaluate the opinions of her treating physician. I agree. In remanding for additional explanation, however, I express no opinion as to whether the ALJ's ultimate conclusion that Ms. Maddox is not entitled to benefits is correct.

         First, Ms. Maddox argues that the ALJ failed to explain the RFC assessment, particularly the determination that her “time off-task could be accommodated by normal work breaks.” Pl. Mot. 5-7. Twice in the course of the opinion, the ALJ recited certain activities of daily living that Ms. Maddox can perform, but noted that she does them “at a slower pace and while accounting for her impairment symptoms.” (Tr. 19, 21). While the ALJ did not entirely find Ms. Maddox's self-reported limitations to be supported by the record evidence, the ALJ also did not expressly address the allegations relating to Ms. Maddox's slower pace of work or her need for frequent breaks or rest. See (Tr. 19) (“On a typical day, the claimant contends that she is up for no more than 1-2 hours at one time, before taking her medication and returning to sleep.”). In the absence of any discussion of the ALJ's analysis of the alleged slower pace and need for extensive breaks, I am unable to evaluate whether the ALJ's conclusion that “normal work breaks” would suffice is supported by substantial evidence.

         Ms. Maddox's second argument is somewhat related to her first. In 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 et seq., pertain to mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1 § 12.00. 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.

         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. 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. § 404.1620a(c)(4). In order 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'x 1 § 12.02. 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 “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. § 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.

         In the instant case, the ALJ found that Ms. Maddox had moderate difficulties maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 16). The ALJ's analysis stated:

The record additionally reflects reported restrictions with memory, completing tasks, concentration, understanding, following instructions, handling stress, and dealing with changes in routine. Nevertheless, as noted above, she retains at least some capacity to take care of personal needs, prepare small meals, complete household chores, shop for ...

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