United States District Court, D. Maryland
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge.
to Standing Order 2014-01, the above-referenced case has been
referred to me for review of the parties' dispositive
motions and to make recommendations pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 301.5(b)(ix). Plaintiff
Yvonne M., who appears pro se, petitioned this Court
to review the Social Security Administration's
(“SSA's”) final decision to deny her claims
for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). ECF 1. I
have considered the Motions for Summary Judgment filed by
both parties, Plaintiff's two replies (because she
believed her first reply had been lost in the mail), and the
additional medical records Plaintiff filed. ECF 14, 15, 18,
21, 23, 24. This Court must uphold the SSA's decision if
it is supported by substantial evidence and if proper legal
standards were employed. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g),
1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th
Cir. 1996); Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th
Cir. 1987). I find that no hearing is necessary. See
Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the reasons set forth below,
I recommend that the SSA's motion be denied, the decision
of the SSA be reversed in part, and the case be remanded to
the SSA for further consideration pursuant to sentence four
of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In so recommending, I express no
opinion as to whether the ALJ's ultimate conclusion that
Plaintiff is not entitled to benefits is correct.
filed her applications for DIB and SSI on April 5, 2012,
alleging a disability onset date of July 1, 2011. Tr. 162-74.
Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr.
98-102, 108-11. A hearing was held on September 16, 2014,
before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr.
31-61. Following the hearing, on December 18, 2014, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Miles was not disabled within the meaning
of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame.
Tr. 9-30. The Appeals Council denied Ms. Miles's request
for review, Tr. 1-6, but on November 23, 2016, this Court
remanded Plaintiff's case to the Commissioner for further
evaluation. Tr. 533-37. An ALJ held a second hearing on
September 19, 2017. Tr. 444-83. Following that hearing and
the receipt of additional medical evidence, on February 7,
2018, the ALJ again issued an opinion denying benefits. Tr.
542-75. The Appeals Council denied review, Tr. 436-41, so the
ALJ's 2018 decision constitutes the final, reviewable
decision of the SSA.
opinion, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the
severe impairments of:
Cervical and Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease, Obesity,
Arthritis, Degenerative Joint Disease of the Knees, Carpal
Tunnel Syndrome, Pelvic Floor Dysfunction, Major Depressive
Disorder, Panic Disorder, Adjustment Disorder with Depressed
Mood and Anxiety.
548. Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except that she requires the option to change
positions from sitting to standing every 30 minutes at the
work station, and can perform occasional stooping, crouching,
kneeling, crawling, balancing and climbing stairs and ramps,
no climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds and frequent
fingering, handling and feeling bilaterally. She can
understand, remember and carry out simple instructions and
can perform simple, routine tasks in a work environment free
of fast-paced production requirements, can remain on task
with scheduled breaks, must have low stress, defined as no
independent decision making required and occasional changes
in work setting and can have occasional required interaction
with the public, supervisors and co-workers.
551. After considering the testimony of a vocational expert
(“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could
not perform her past relevant work, but could perform other
jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.
Tr. 564-65. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was
not disabled. Tr. 565-66.
carefully reviewed the ALJ's opinion and the entire
record. See Elam v. Barnhart, 386 F.Supp.2d 746, 753
(E.D. Tex. 2005) (mapping an analytical framework for
judicial review of a pro se action challenging an
adverse administrative decision, including: (1) examining
whether the SSA's decision generally comports with
regulations, (2) reviewing the ALJ's critical findings
for compliance with the law, and (3) determining from the
evidentiary record whether substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's findings). For the reasons described below, while
substantial evidence supports most of the ALJ's decision,
the analysis is legally deficient in a limited respect
defeating adequate judicial review. Accordingly, I recommend
one, the ALJ ruled in Plaintiff's favor, finding that she
had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her
alleged onset date. Tr. 548. At step two, the ALJ found the
severe impairments listed above, and also found a number of
other impairments to be nonsevere. Id. At step
three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments
did not meet, or medically equal, the criteria of any of the
impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix
1 (2018). Tr. 548-51. The ALJ specifically considered
Listings 1.02, 1.04, 4.12, 12.04, and 12.06. Id. The
ALJ reviewed the criteria of each listing, and discussed
which criteria were absent from the medical evidence.
Id. In determining Plaintiff's RFC assessment
for use in steps four and five, the ALJ summarized
Plaintiff's allegations from her testimony and function
reports regarding her inability to perform work activity, and
considered evidence from her friend, Seanetta Williams, who
provided testimony at the hearing. Tr. 551-53. The ALJ then
engaged in an extensive review of the medical records, Tr.
553-59, and evaluated and assigned weight to the relevant
medical opinions, Tr. 561-64.
ALJ's written decision is, for the most part, extremely
thorough, and supports its findings with substantial
evidence. Plaintiff's argument, generally, is that the
medical evidence should weigh in favor of a finding of
disability, but the function of this Court is not to review
Plaintiff's claims de novo or to reweigh the
evidence of record. See Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d
343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir.
1972)). Rather, this Court is to determine whether, upon
review of the whole record, the SSA's decision is
supported by substantial evidence and a proper application of
the law. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also
Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).
point, however, I am unable to find a proper application of
the law, due to the Fourth Circuit's recent opinion in
Thomas v. Berryhill, 916 F.3d 307 (4th Cir. 2019).
In correcting the error under Mascio v. Colvin, 780
F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015), that required remand of the initial
ALJ opinion in Plaintiff's case, the ALJ's 2018
decision limited Plaintiff, in relevant part, to a
“work environment free of fast-paced production
requirements.” Tr. 551. The law in this area continues
to evolve, and in Thomas, the Fourth Circuit held
that the ALJ's failure to define “production rate
or demand pace” was fatal to the RFC assessment,
because the lack of a clear definition of that phrase
frustrated appellate review. 916 F.3d at 312-13; see also
Perry v. Berryhill, No. 18-1076, __F. App'x__, 2019
U.S. App. LEXIS 6969 (4th Cir. Mar. 8, 2019) (unpublished).
Similarly, in Plaintiff's case, the ALJ provided no
definition of a “work environment free of fast-paced
production requirements” or any of the relevant
components of that phrase. See Tr. 551, 562, 563,
478. The term “fast-paced production
requirements” is directly analogous to the term deemed
problematic in Thomas, particularly because, as this
Court has previously noted, “Different individuals can
have different conceptions of what work is or is not
‘fast.'” Crocetti v. Comm'r. Soc.
Sec., Civil No. SAG-17-1122, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
95697, at *3 (D. Md. June 6, 2018). Without further
explanation of the meaning of that term, then, I am unable to
engage in effective appellate review as described in
Thomas, and I therefore recommend remand. If the
case is ultimately remanded, the ALJ should ensure that the
RFC assessment and related analysis comports with the
requirements of Thomas, in addition to considering
any new medical evidence submitted by Plaintiff.
reasons set forth above, I ...