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Beau S. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 16, 2019

Beau S.
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;

          LETTER TO COUNSEL

         Dear Counsel:

         On July 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.

         Plaintiff filed his claim for benefits on August 3, 2015, originally alleging an onset date of June 27, 2014.[1] 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.

         The ALJ 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         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.

         In the 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 ...


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