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Shantel K. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 19, 2019

Shantel K.
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security

         LETTER TO COUNSEL:

         Dear Counsel:

         On June 25, 2018, Plaintiff Shantel K.[1] petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (ECF No. 1.) The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 13 & 14.) These motions have been referred to the undersigned with the parties' consent pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636 and Local Rule 301.[2] Having considered the submissions of the parties, I find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6. This Court must uphold the decision of the agency if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the agency employed the proper legal standards. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). Following its review, this Court may affirm, modify, or reverse the Acting Commissioner, with or without a remand. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89 (1991). Under that standard, I will deny both motions and remand the case for further proceedings. This letter explains my rationale.

         In her application for SSI, Shantel K. alleged a disability onset date of October 1, 2015. (Tr. 16.) Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Id.) A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on May 16, 2017, (Tr. 33-55), and the ALJ found that Shantel K. was not disabled under the Social Security Act (Tr. 16-28). The Appeals Council denied Shantel K.'s request for review (Tr. 1-4), making the ALJ's decision the final, reviewable decision of the agency.

         The ALJ evaluated Shantel K.'s claim for benefits using the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. At step one, the ALJ found that Shantel K. was not engaged in substantial gainful activity and had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 30, 2015. (Tr. 19.) At step two, the ALJ found that Shantel K. suffered from the following severe impairments: Pica, personality disorder, and alcohol use disorder. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found Shantel K.'s impairments, separately and in combination, failed to meet or equal in severity any listed impairment as set forth in 20 C.F.R., Chapter III, Pt. 404, Subpart P, App. 1 (“Listings”). (Id.) Considering Shantel K.'s impairments, including her substance use disorder, the ALJ determined that she retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: simple, routine, repetitive work in an environment with few, if any, workplace changes. The claimant can have occasional interaction with supervisors, can work in proximity to co-workers, but not with them, and could have no public interaction. The claimant would miss two days of work per month.

(Tr. 21.)

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Shantel K. had no past relevant work. (Tr. 23.) At step five, the ALJ found that Shantel K.'s ability to perform work has been compromised by her substance use disorder and that if she did not stop her substance use, there were no jobs in the national economy that she could perform. (Tr. 23-24.)

         The ALJ then considered whether Shantel K.'s disability would exist in the absence of the substance abuse. See Delk v. Colvin, 675 Fed.Appx. 281, 283 (4th Cir. 2017) (“Therefore, when- as here-the ALJ finds both a disability and evidence of substance abuse after conducting the five-step analysis, he must then determine whether the disability would exist in the absence of the substance abuse.”). The ALJ concluded that even if Shantel K. stopped the substance use, she would continue to have severe impairments, but none that met or equaled any of the Listings. (Tr. 24.) If Shantel K. stopped the substance use, the ALJ determined that she would have the RFC:

to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: simple, routine, repetitive work in an environment with few, if any, workplace changes. The claimant can have occasionally interaction with supervisors, can work in proximity to co-workers, but not with them, and could have no public interaction. The claimant would miss one day of work per month.

(Tr. 25.)

         At step four, the ALJ again noted that Shantel K. had no past relevant work. (Tr. 26.) At step five, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that, if Shantel K. stopped the substance use, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform, including night janitor, dishwasher, and cleaner. (Tr. 27.) Therefore, the ALJ found that Shantel K. was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 27.)

         Shantel K. presents two arguments in this appeal: (1) that the ALJ's RFC determination does not take into account her moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace, and therefore runs afoul of the Fourth Circuit's decision in Mascio, 780 F.3d 632; and (2) that the ALJ's RFC is not supported by substantial evidence. Because I find that the ALJ's RFC determination does not comply with Mascio, I decline to address Shantel K.'s second argument.[3]

         In Mascio, the Fourth Circuit held that “an ALJ does not account ‘for a claimant's limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace by restricting the [claimant] to simple, routine tasks or unskilled work.'” 780 F.3d at 638 (quoting Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1180 (11th Cir. 2011)). This is because “the ability to perform simple tasks differs from the ability to stay on task.” Id. Where an ALJ finds that a claimant has limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace, the ALJ is ...


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