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Guillermo S. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 28, 2019

Guillermo S.
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration

          CHAMBERS OF STEPHANIE A. GALLAGHER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          STEPHANIE A. GALLAGHER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Dear Counsel:

         On August 29, 2018, Plaintiff Guillermo S. petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's (“SSA's”) final decision to deny his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits. ECF 1. I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF 14, 15. I find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). 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.

         Plaintiff filed his claim for benefits on June 1, 2015, alleging an onset date of September 1, 2014. Tr. 260-61. His claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 92-96. A hearing was held on August 1, 2017, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 31-62. Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. Tr. 15-25. The Appeals Council declined review, Tr. 1-8, so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the SSA.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of “lumbar degenerative disc disease, obesity, depression and anxiety.” Tr. 17. Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) with additional limitations. The claimant is able to lift up to 20 pounds at a time, frequently lift or carry objects weighing up to 10 pounds, and stand, walk and sit for approximately six hours each in an eight-hour workday. He can push/pull the same amount as he can lift and carry. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs and he can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. He can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. The claimant is limited to performing simple, repetitive work. He is able to adapt to routine workplace changes and situations.

         Tr. 19. After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a gas station cashier. Tr. 24. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 25.

         Plaintiff presents three arguments on appeal: (1) that the ALJ's RFC assessment runs afoul of the Fourth Circuit's decision in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015); (2) that the ALJ erroneously failed to assign weight to the opinion of a consultative examiner; and (3) that the ALJ erred when assigning weight to the other medical opinions. I agree that the ALJ's analysis did not comply with Mascio, and I therefore grant remand under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In remanding for further explanation, I express no opinion as to whether the ALJ's ultimate conclusion that Plaintiff is not entitled to benefits is correct.

         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 637-38. At step three of the sequential evaluation, the SSA 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 (2017). Listings 12.00 et seq. pertain to mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00 (2017). The relevant listings therein consist of: (1) “paragraph A criteria, ” which consist of a set of medical findings; (2) “paragraph B criteria, ” which consist of a set of impairment-related functional limitations; and (3) “paragraph C criteria, ” which relate to “serious and persistent” disorders lasting at least two years with a history of ongoing medical treatment and marginal adjustment. Id. §§ 12.00(A), (G). A claimant's impairments meet the listings relevant to this case by satisfying either the paragraph A and paragraph B criteria, or the paragraph A and paragraph C criteria. Id. § 12.00(A).

         Paragraph B consists of four broad functional areas including: (1) understanding, remembering, or applying information; (2) interacting with others; (3) concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace, and (4) adapting or managing oneself. Id. § 12.00(A)(2)(b). The functional area of concentration, persistence, or pace “refers to the abilit[y] to focus attention on work activities and stay on task at a sustained rate.” Id. § 12.00(E)(3).

         The SSA employs the “special technique” to rate a claimant's degree of limitation in each functional 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(b), (c)(2) (2017). The SSA uses a five-point scale to rate a claimant's degree of limitation in the four areas: none, mild, moderate, marked, or extreme. Id. § 404.1520a(c)(4). A moderate limitation signifies that the claimant has only a fair ability to function in the relevant area of mental functioning. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(F)(2)(c) (2017).

         The 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. Id.

         At step three in the instant case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had a moderate limitation with concentration, persistence, or maintaining pace. Tr. 18. ...


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