United States District Court, D. Maryland
LETTER TO COUNSEL
18, 2017, Plaintiff Margaret Shinaberry 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. Shinaberry's
reply. [ECF Nos. 19, 22, 25]. 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 Ms. Shinaberry's motion, grant the SSA's motion,
and affirm the SSA's judgment pursuant to sentence four
of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Shinaberry protectively filed a claim for Disability
Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on November 5, 2013,
alleging a disability onset date of April 8, 2011. (Tr.
180-83). Ms. Shinaberry later amended her alleged onset date
to November 5, 2013. (Tr. 207). Her claim was denied
initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 99-112, 113-25). A
hearing was held on January 7, 2016, before an Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 41-94). Following the
hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Shinaberry was not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during
the relevant time frame. (Tr. 21-35). The Appeals Council
denied Ms. Shinaberry's request for review, (Tr. 1-7), so
the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable
decision of the Agency.
found that Ms. Shinaberry suffered from the severe
impairments of “obesity, degenerative disc disease of
the cervical spine and the lumbar spine, status post left
shoulder rotator cuff tear, and borderline intellectual
functioning.” (Tr. 24). Despite these impairments, the
ALJ determined that Ms. Shinaberry retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except
the claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.
The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs,
balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant is
limited to occasionally reaching overhead on the left,
non-dominant side. The claimant is limited to occasionally
operating foot controls bilaterally. The claimant is limited
to unskilled work performing simple, routine, and repetitive
(Tr. 28). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms.
Shinaberry could perform several jobs existing in significant
numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 34-35). Accordingly,
the ALJ determined that Ms. Shinaberry was not disabled. (Tr.
Shinaberry raises several issues on appeal, including that:
(1) the ALJ's decision did not comport with the Fourth
Circuit's holding in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d
632 (4th Cir. 2015); (2) the ALJ erroneously determined that
she was limited to light work; and (3) the ALJ erroneously
gave weight to her Global Assessment of Functions
(“GAF”) score. Pl. Mot. 7-16. Each argument lacks
merit and is addressed below.
Ms. Shinaberry argues that the ALJ erred in her RFC
assessment of mental limitations. Specifically, Ms.
Shinaberry contends that the ALJ failed to adequately support
her RFC assessment with substantial evidence, and that the
ALJ's decision did not comport with the dictates of
Mascio. In Mascio, the Fourth Circuit
voiced its agreement 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.” 780 F.3d at 638 (joining the Third, Seventh,
Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits) (citation and internal
quotation marks omitted). The Fourth Circuit explained that
“the ability to perform simple tasks differs from the
ability to stay on task. Only the latter limitation would
account for a claimant's limitation in concentration,
persistence, or pace.” Id. In so holding,
however, the Fourth Circuit noted the possibility that an ALJ
could offer an explanation regarding why a claimant's
moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace at
step three did not translate into a limitation in the
claimant's RFC assessment, such that the apparent
discrepancy would not constitute reversible error.
at step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Shinaberry suffered
from “moderate difficulties” in the area of
concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 27). In the RFC
assessment, the ALJ provided that Ms. Shinaberry “is
limited to unskilled work performing simple, routine, and
repetitive tasks.” (Tr. 28). Although a limitation to
simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, without explanation,
is insufficient under Mascio, the ALJ in the instant
case explained that Ms. Shinaberry's “concentration
and task persistence were adequate, ” after assigning
great weight to Dr. Burlingame's medical opinions, and
cited to evidence indicating that Ms. Shinaberry had no
limitations related to pace. (Tr. 32) (citing Tr. 364-67);
see (Tr. 366) (January 14, 2014 consultative
psychological examination records, indicating that Ms.
Shinaberry's processing speed was “Average”).
The ALJ discussed and cited to the State agency psychological
consultants' mental assessments, in which the
psychological consultants opined that Ms. Shinaberry's
ability to perform at a consistent pace without an
unreasonable number and length of rest periods was
“[n]ot significantly limited, ” and that Ms.
Shinaberry was “[a]ble to sustain [concentration,
persistence, and pace] for extended period; able to complete
a variety of tasks for 6-8 hours in an eight-hour period at
an appropriate pace, and sustain this level across days and
weeks.” (Tr. 109, 123). Importantly, I disagree with
Ms. Shinaberry's contention that the State agency
psychological consultants' opinions and Dr.
Burlingame's evaluation are at odds. Rather, the State
agency consultants' suggested limitation to simple and
repetitive tasks and a reduction in complex tasks, (Tr. 109,
123), is fully consistent with Dr. Burlingame's opinion
that Ms. Shinaberry's “ability to tolerate
work-related stresses and demands of a normal 40 hour work
week with verbal requirements in reading and math calculation
was deemed poor, ” (Tr. 367). Indeed, the jobs cited by
the VE are unskilled, and require only levels 1-2 in math and
language. See, e.g., Order Caller, Dictionary of
Occupational Titles, DICOT 209.667-014 (G.P.O.), 1991 WL
671807 (1991); Sales Attendant, Dictionary of
Occupational Titles, DICOT 299.677-010 (G.P.O), 1991 WL
ALJ's analysis, then, makes it clear that she believes
Ms. Shinaberry's difficulties with concentration,
persistence, and pace are limited to complex tasks. Under
both Mascio and the Social Security regulations, it
is improper for an ALJ to base a finding of
“moderate” limitations on a difficulty with
complex work. See, e.g., 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt.
P, App'x 1 § 12.00(C)(3) (2015) (“[A claimant]
may be able to sustain attention and persist at simple tasks
but may still have difficulty with complicated tasks.
Deficiencies that are apparent only in performing complex
procedures or tasks would not satisfy the intent of this
paragraph B criterion.”). However, the ALJ's
improper finding of “moderate limitations” based
on complexity is harmless, because the thorough explanation
allows me to understand the conclusion that Ms.
Shinaberry's moderate limitation in concentration,
persistence, or pace did not translate into a RFC limitation.
Ms. Shinaberry argues that the ALJ erroneously determined
that she was limited to light work. Specifically, Ms.
Shinaberry appears to contend that the ALJ improperly
rejected the sedentary limitation suggested by her treating
source, Kristina Matthews, PA-C; that the ALJ erred in her
determination that Ms. Shinaberry's testimony was not
credible; and that the ALJ erroneously failed to include a
“sit/stand” option in her RFC. Pl. Mot. 12-15.
the ALJ adequately explained and supported her assignment of
“little” weight to Ms. Matthews's opinion
that Ms. Shinaberry was “unable to lift ten
pounds.” In addition to evidence from medical sources,
the ALJ may consider evidence from “other sources,
” including physician assistants, as a source of
“insight into the severity of the impairment(s) and how
it affects the individual's ability to function.”
Id. In evaluating evidence from other sources, the
ALJ may consider various factors, including “the nature
and extent of the relationship, whether the evidence is
consistent with other evidence, and any other factors that
tend to support or refute the evidence.” Id.
at *6. First, the ALJ observed that Ms. Matthews's
opinion was “not supported with an explanation.”
(Tr. 32); see (Tr. 425). Indeed, Ms. Matthews's
January 12, 2016 letter consists of three short sentences,
and simply states: “Ms. Shinaberry has been under my
medical care and it is my medical opinion that she has been
unable to lift greater than ten pounds since November
2014.” (Tr. 425). See Brown ex rel. A.W. v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. Civ. SAG-12-52, 2013 WL
823371, at *2 (D. Md. Mar. 5, 2013) (“[I]t would be
difficult for any ALJ to assign any meaningful weight to
opinions devoid of evidentiary support.”); see also
Beitzell v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., No. Civ.
SAG-12-2699, 2013 WL 3155443, at *3 (D. Md. June 18, 2013)
(upholding the ALJ's assignment of weight while noting
that the treating source's assessment “provided no
narrative explanation for the limitations proposed in the
form”). Second, the ALJ found that Ms. Matthews's
opinion was not consistent with treatment records
“showing no evidence of restrictions regarding
lifting.” (Tr. 32). The ALJ, for example, cited to Ms.
Shinaberry's physical examination records
“reveal[ing] normal musculoskeletal findings; . . .
normal strength and tone in the left and right shoulders, a
negative drop arm test, and normal strength and tone in the
left and right elbows.” Id. (citing (Tr.
403)). Finally, the ALJ considered the nature and extent of
Ms. Shinaberry's relationship with Ms. Matthews, noting
that “Ms. Matthews is not an acceptable medical source
under Social Security regulations.” (Tr. 32);
see SSR 06-03P, 2006 WL 2329939, at *2 (S.S.A. Aug.
9, 2006). In light of the ALJ's thorough discussion and
citation to the evidence of record, the ALJ properly rejected
Ms. Matthews's suggestion that Ms. Shinaberry is unable
to lift more than ten pounds.
the ALJ adequately supported her determination that Ms.
Shinaberry's statements regarding her alleged limitations
were not credible. In assessing the credibility of a
claimant's statements, the ALJ “must consider the
entire case record, including the objective medical evidence,
the individual's own statements about symptoms,
statements and other information provided by treating or
examining physicians . . . and any other relevant evidence in
the case record.” SSR 96-7P, 1996 WL 374186, at *1
(S.S.A. July 2, 1996); see also Brown v. Comm'r, Soc.
Sec. Admin., 873 F.2d 251, 269 (4th Cir. 2017)
(“[T]he ALJ must build an accurate and logical bridge
from the evidence to his conclusion that [the claimant's]
testimony was not credible . . . .”) (internal
quotation marks and citations omitted). An ALJ, however,
cannot rely exclusively on objective evidence to undermine a
claimant's subjective assertions of disabling pain.
See Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 866 (4th Cir.
2017) (holding that the ALJ improperly discounted the
claimant's subjective complaints “based solely on
the lack of objective evidence” supporting the
to Ms. Shinaberry's assertions, the ALJ properly
evaluated her subjective statements after evaluating medical
and non-medical evidence in the record. After summarizing Ms.
Shinaberry's statements regarding her alleged
limitations, the ALJ found that her subjective complaints
were undermined by her prior statements and her admitted
daily activities and abilities. (Tr. 29). For example, the
ALJ noted that Ms. Shinaberry “reported no problems
with bathing, caring for her hair, or feeding herself,
” and stated that she “prepares her own meals
daily, . . . drives a car, is able to go out alone, and can
shop in stores.” (Tr. 26); see (Tr. 29).
Moreover, the ALJ discussed and cited to the medical
evidence, noting that Ms. Shinaberry “did not continue
with her physical therapy exercises after her initial course
of physical therapy, suggesting that her pain was not as
limiting as was alleged.” (Tr. 29). Notably, the ALJ
observed that, based on treatment records from 2013 until
2015, Ms. Shinaberry appeared to be “doing ‘very
well'” and that her treatment and medication
“were ‘helping her functionality' and that
she was able to do household chores.” (Tr. 30).
Importantly, even if there is other evidence that may support