United States District Court, D. Maryland
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;
LETTER TO COUNSEL
9, 2018, Plaintiff 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, and Plaintiff's reply. ECF 17, 18, 19.
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.
filed his claim for benefits on August 3, 2015, originally
alleging an onset date of June 27, 2014. Tr. 178-79. His
claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 95-98,
100-01. A hearing was held on June 12, 2017, before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 20-40.
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. 75-89. The Appeals
Council declined review, Tr. 1-7, so the ALJ's decision
constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the SSA.
found that, during the relevant time frame, Plaintiff
suffered from the severe impairments of “history of
supraventricular tachycardia status-post two ablations,
cervical disc bulge, lumbar facet disorder, anxiety disorder
and bipolar disorder.” Tr. 78. Despite these
impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform less than the full range of 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 and frequently lift
or carry objects weighing up to 10 pounds. In an eight-hour
workday, the claimant can sit for six hours and stand/walk
for two hours each. He requires a cane for prolonged
ambulation or uneven terrain. 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 can frequently handle
and finger. The claimant is limited to performing simple
tasks and he can respond appropriately and interact with
supervisors, coworkers and the public on an occasional basis.
He is able to adapt to routine workplace changes.
Tr. 80. After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff
could not perform his past relevant work, but could perform
one job existing in significant numbers in the national
economy: that of document preparer (Dictionary of
Occupational Titles number 249.587-018). Tr. 87-88.
Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled
during the relevant time frame. Tr. 88-89.
makes two primary arguments on appeal: (1) 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); and (2) that the ALJ's step
five finding was not supported by substantial evidence. I
agree that the opinion did not comport with Mascio,
and I therefore remand the case for further analysis.
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.
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. §
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).
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.
instant case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had moderate
difficulties maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace.
Tr. 79. The ALJ's analysis stated:
The claimant reported having difficulty concentrating
generally. However, he also reported that if he is interested
in what he is doing, he can pay attention for one to three
hours at a time. The claimant also reported that he can watch
television, read, manage his finances and prepare simple
food. Overall, there is no evidence of greater than moderate
limitations in this area.
Tr. 79 (internal citations omitted). That analysis contains
no discussion of Plaintiff's ability to sustain work at a
competitive pace over a typical workday, other than
Plaintiff's own report about his difficulties with
concentration. The daily tasks cited by the ALJ are not
typically tasks that are sustained over eight-hour, or even
two-hour, periods, and there is no description of what tasks
do or do not ...