United States District Court, D. Maryland
LETTER TO COUNSEL
11, 2017, Plaintiff Terri Lynn Hinkle petitioned this Court
to review the Social Security Administration's
(“SSA's”) final decision to deny her claim
for Supplemental Security Income. [ECF No. 1]. I have
considered the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment, and Ms. Hinkle's reply. [ECF Nos. 15, 18, 19].
I find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R.
105.6 (D. Md. 2016). This Court must uphold the decision of
the SSA if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the
SSA 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.
Hinkle protectively filed her instant claim for benefits on
March 28, 2013. (Tr. 206-16). Her claim was denied
initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 49-56, 58-72). Ms.
Hinkle then waived an oral hearing before an Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”), and the ALJ issued a decision
denying benefits. (Tr. 134-36, 74-91). The Appeals Council
(“AC”) remanded the ALJ's decision for
further consideration. (Tr. 92-95). This time, an ALJ held a
hearing on December 19, 2015. (Tr. 8-38). Following the
hearing, on February 16, 2016, the ALJ again determined that
Ms. Hinkle was not disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 96-119).
This time, the AC denied Ms. Hinkle's request for review,
(Tr. 1-7), so the ALJ's 2016 decision constitutes the
final, reviewable decision of the SSA.
2016, the ALJ found that Ms. Hinkle suffered from the severe
impairments of “history of T12 compression fracture and
lumbar spine hyperlordosis; carpal tunnel syndrome;
depressive disorder NOS; unspecified anxiety state; panic
disorder; and obesity.” (Tr. 101). Despite these
impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Hinkle retained the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR
416.967(a) except: standing and walking up to two
hour [sic] per day; occasional stairs and ramps; no ladders,
ropes or scaffolds; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling,
crouching and no crawling; occasional reaching overhead. She
can perform unskilled work at an SVP 1 or 2 involving simple,
routine tasks with no more than simple, work-related
decisions and no tasks requiring independent goal setting.
(Tr. 104). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Hinkle
could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy. (Tr. 113-14). Therefore, the ALJ concluded
that she was not disabled. (Tr. 114).
Hinkle raises four primary arguments on appeal. First, she
argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated Listings 1.04A and
11.14. Pl. Mot. 9-19. Second, she contends that the ALJ erred
in applying the Medical-Vocational Guidelines by failing to
consider her borderline age category. Id. at 19-22.
Third, she argues that the ALJ's holding violates
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015).
Id. at 22-26. Finally, she contends that the
ALJ's adverse credibility determination is unsupported by
substantial evidence. Id. at 26-27. I concur that
further analysis must be provided as to the Listings and as
to Ms. Hinkle's moderate limitation in concentration,
persistence, or pace. Accordingly, remand is warranted. In
remanding for further explanation, I express no opinion as to
whether the ALJ's ultimate conclusion that Ms. Hinkle is
not entitled to benefits is correct.
at step three, the ALJ determined that Ms. Hinkle's
impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of
any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404A, Subpart
P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 102). With respect to Ms. Hinkle's
physical impairments, the ALJ simply stated:
In reaching this conclusion, I have considered the
claimant's physical impairments under Section 1.01, et
seq. (musculoskeletal), specifically listing 1.04 (disorders
of the spine) and Section 11.01, et seq.
(neurological), specifically listing 11.14 (peripheral
neuropathies) of the Listing of Impairments contained in 20
CFR Part 404, Appendix 1 to Subpart P. However, the medical
evidence fails to establish an impairment or combination of
impairments that is accompanied by the signs reflective of
listing level severity.
must identify the relevant listings and compare each of the
criteria to the evidence of the claimant's symptoms when
there is “ample evidence in the record to support a
determination” that the claimant's impairments meet
or equal a listing. Cook v. Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168,
1172-73 (4th Cir. 1986). In the instant case, because the ALJ
apparently believed that the record contained ample evidence
that Listings 1.04A and 11.14 might be met, he expressly
identified those listings. (Tr. 102).
remainder of the ALJ's analysis, however, is patently
deficient. The ALJ did not cite any medical evidence to
support her step three conclusions, and simply made a
conclusory assertion that “the medical evidence fails
to establish an impairment or combination of impairments that
is accompanied by the signs reflective of listing level
severity.” (Tr. 102). That assertion does not include
any “specific application of the pertinent legal
requirements to the record evidence.” Radford v.
Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 291-92 (4th Cir. 2013) (citation
omitted). My role is to review the ALJ's analysis, not to
conduct the analysis in the first instance. See Fox v.
Colvin, 632 Fed.Appx. 750, 755 (4th Cir. 2015)
(emphasizing that it is not this Court's role to
“engage in an analysis that the ALJ should have done
in the first instance, ” or “to speculate as to
how the ALJ applied the law to its findings or to hypothesize
the ALJ's justifications that would perhaps find support
in the record”). Here, without any analysis from the
ALJ to suggest whether or how she evaluated the criteria of
Listings 1.04A or 11.14, I am unable to review whether the
ALJ's conclusions were supported by substantial evidence.
addition, Ms. Hinkle contends that the ALJ's holding runs
afoul of Mascio. I agree. 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.
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. ...