United States District Court, D. Maryland
STEPHANIE A. GALLAGHER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
November 2, 2017, Plaintiff Tiffany Brooks petitioned this
Court to review the Social Security Administration's
(“SSA's”) final decision to deny her claims
for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security
Income. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 14, 15). 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.
prior denial, Ms. Brooks filed her claims for benefits on
September 11, 2014, alleging an onset date of March 18, 2014.
(Tr. 318-27). Her claims were denied initially and
on reconsideration. (Tr. 122-47, 150-75). A hearing was held
on January 24, 2017, before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). (Tr. 70-82). Following the hearing, the
ALJ determined that Ms. Brooks was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time
frame. (Tr. 44-69). The Appeals Council (“AC”)
denied Ms. Brooks's request for further review, (Tr.
4-10), so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final,
reviewable decision of the SSA.
found that Ms. Brooks suffered from the severe impairments of
“left knee osteoarthritis, neuritis, radiculitis, right
shoulder tear of supraspinatus tendon with tendinosis,
obesity, major depressive disorder, panic disorder, [and]
agoraphobia.” (Tr. 50). Despite these impairments, the
ALJ determined that Ms. Brooks would retain the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and
416.967(a) except she can lift 10 pounds occasionally and
frequently. She can occasionally stoop, crouch, and kneel,
but never crawl. She can occasionally climb stairs and ramps,
but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She needs to avoid
concentrated exposure to cold weather extremes, wetness,
vibration, and hazards. She is limited to occasional overhead
reaching with the right upper extremity. She is limited to
simple, routine, repetitive tasks with occasional interaction
with supervisors, coworkers, and the public, but direct
customer service and no teamwork. Beginning February 1, 2016,
she needs a cane to ambulate.
(Tr. 55). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Brooks
could perform her past relevant work as a document preparer
and, alternatively, other jobs existing in the national
economy. (Tr. 61-62). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that she
was not disabled. (Tr. 63).
Brooks makes several arguments on appeal:
(1) that the ALJ's assignment of
“some weight” to each of her medical sources'
opinions was unsupported and undefined; (2) that the
ALJ's RFC assessment was flawed and runs afoul of the
Fourth Circuit's decision in Mascio v. Colvin,
780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015); (3) that the ALJ's
decision did not comport with Fourth Circuit law and SSA
guidance as to the proper treatment of a prior favorable ALJ
determination; and (4) that the ALJ's RFC assessment
conflicted with the definition of her past relevant work in
the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”).
Although some of Ms. Brooks's arguments lack merit, I
agree that the ALJ's analysis did not comply with
Mascio, and I therefore grant remand.
with the successful argument, 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). 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).
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”
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.
instant case, the ALJ found that Ms. Brooks had moderate
difficulties maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace.