United States District Court, D. Maryland
MARK COULSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
20, 2017, Ms. Marquita Tamara LeGrand petitioned this Court
to review the Social Security Administration's final
decision to deny her claims for disability and disability
insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (ECF No.
1). I have considered the parties' cross-motions for
summary judgment and Ms. LeGrand's Response. (ECF Nos.
16, 19, 20). I find that no hearing is necessary. Loc. R.
105.6 (D. Md. 2016). This Court must uphold the decision of
the Agency if it is supported by substantial evidence and
correct legal standards were employed. 42 U.S.C. §
405(g); see Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th
Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will deny both motions,
reverse the judgment of the Social Security Administration,
and remand the case to the Social Security Administration for
further analysis pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). This letter explains my rationale.
LeGrand filed a claim for benefits on June 26, 2013. (Tr.
176-85). Her claim was denied initially and on
reconsideration following appeal. (Tr. 109-14; 116-19).
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Mary
Forrest-Doyle held a hearing on March 11, 2016. (Tr. 28-62).
Following that hearing, on June 28, 2016, the ALJ determined
that Ms. LeGrand was not disabled during the relevant time
frame. (Tr. 8-21). The Appeals Council denied Ms.
LeGrand's request for review on June 15, 2017, making the
ALJ's decision the final, reviewable decision of the
Agency. (Tr. 1-3).
arriving at her decision to deny Ms. LeGrand's claim, the
ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation of
disability set forth in the Secretary's regulations. 20
C.F.R. § 416.920. “To summarize, the ALJ asks at
step one whether the claimant has been working; at step two,
whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the
regulations' severity and duration requirements; at step
three, whether the medical impairments meet or equal an
impairment listed in the regulations; at step four, whether
the claimant can perform her past work given the limitations
caused by her medical impairments; and at step five, whether
the claimant can perform other work.” Mascio v.
Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). If the
first three steps do not yield a conclusive determination,
the ALJ then assesses the claimant's residual functional
capacity (“RFC”), “which is ‘the
most' the claimant ‘can still do despite'
physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to
work, ” by considering all of the claimant's
medically determinable impairments regardless of severity.
Id. at 635 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1)).
The claimant bears the burden of proof through the first four
steps of the sequential evaluation. If she makes the
requisite showing, the burden shifts to the Social Security
Administration at step five to prove “that the claimant
can perform other work that ‘exists in significant
numbers in the national economy,' considering the
claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education,
and work experience.” Lewis v. Berryhill, 858
F.3d 858, 862 (4th Cir. 2017) (internal citations omitted).
case, at step one, the ALJ found that Ms. LeGrand had not
engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since
February 20, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 13). At step
two, the ALJ determined that Ms. LeGrand's post-traumatic
stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and adjustment
disorder with anxiety and asthma constitute severe
impairments under the relevant regulations. (Tr. 13-14). At
step three, the ALJ found that Ms. LeGrand does not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meet or
medically equal the severity of any of the listed impairments
set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr.
14-15). Then, “[a]fter careful consideration of the
entire record, ” the ALJ determined that Ms. LeGrand
has the RFC to perform:
a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the
following nonexertional limitations: she should avoid
concentrated exposure to chemicals and irritants such as
fumes, odors, dust, and gases and poorly ventilated areas;
limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks; limited to
work in a low stress job, defined as having no decision
making required and no changes in the work setting; no
interaction with the public and only occasional interaction
(Tr. 15-19). At step four, the ALJ determined that Ms.
LeGrand is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr.
19). Finally, at step five, after considering the testimony
of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Ms. LeGrand
can perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy and she was therefore not disabled during
the relevant time frame. (Tr. 19-20).
Court reviews an ALJ's decision to ensure that the
ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and
were reached through application of correct legal standards.
Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir.
2012). “Substantial evidence means such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion, ” which “consists of more
than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a
preponderance.” Id. (internal citations and
quotations omitted). In accordance with this standard, the
Court does not “undertake to reweigh conflicting
evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute
[its] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Johnson v.
Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (internal
citations and quotations omitted). Instead, “[w]here
conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to
whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that
decision falls on the ALJ.” Id.
LeGrand raises a single argument on appeal. She argues that
the ALJ failed to comply with the mandates set forth in the
Fourth Circuit's decision in Mascio v. Colvin,
780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015), as the ALJ “found
Plaintiff to suffer ‘moderate difficulties' in
maintaining concentration, persistence or pace” but
then “did not include a limitation in the RFC
assessment that accounts for Plaintiff's moderate
difficulties maintaining concentration, persistence or pace
throughout an eight-hour workday.” (ECF No. 16-1 at
the ALJ ultimately found that Ms. LeGrand's impairments
did not meet or medically equal any of those listed in the
regulations at step three in the sequential evaluation, a
more-detailed explanation of the analysis at step three will
better inform the Court's decision here. 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. 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. at § 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. at § 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. at § 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. at § 12.00(C).
The 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. at § 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 also offer
little guidance as to the meaning of “moderate”
limitations. See Lewis v. Commissioner, Civ. No.
SAG-16-3661, 2017 WL 2683948, at *2 (D. Md. June 21, 2017).
Mascio, the Fourth Circuit held that a remand was
necessary where the hypothetical the ALJ posed to the
vocational expert, and the corresponding RFC assessment,
failed to 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. In so holding, the Fourth Circuit
agreed with other federal circuits that an ALJ does not
account for a claimant's limitations in concentration,
persistence, or pace by merely restricting the hypothetical
question posed to the vocational expert to simple, routine
tasks or unskilled work. Id. at 638. Nonetheless,
the Fourth Circuit noted that the failure to include
additional limitations may not constitute error if the ALJ is
able to offer an explanation as to why the claimant's
moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace
did not warrant a limitation in the claimant's RFC
assessment. Simply put, the Mascio Court held that
where an ALJ finds moderate difficulties at steps two or
three of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ is then required
either to include the appropriate limitations that would
account for such difficulties in the RFC or to explain why no
such limitations are necessary.
case, the ALJ assessed Ms. LeGrand's mental impairments
pursuant to the “special technique, ” and found
that she had moderate limitations in concentration,