United States District Court, D. Maryland
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;
LETTER TO COUNSEL
October 30, 2018, Plaintiff petitioned this Court to review
the Social Security Administration's
(“SSA's”) final decision to deny her claims
for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance
Benefits. ECF 1. I have considered the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF 15, 18. 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 her claims for benefits on December 10, 2015, alleging
an onset date of November 15, 2013. Tr. 212-20. Her claims
were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 117-24,
127-30. A hearing was held on November 7, 2017, before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 30-58.
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. 13-24. The Appeals
Council declined review, Tr. 1-6, 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 “degenerative
disc disease of the lumbar spine; hypertension; diabetes
mellitus; obesity; hepatitis; major depressive disorder; and
posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” Tr. 15. 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) and
416.967(b) except she can occasionally stoop and occasionally
climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; she is able to remember
and carry out short and simple instructions and tasks in a
routine work setting; and she can tolerate occasional
interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public.
Tr. 18. 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. 22-24. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that
Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant time frame.
makes five primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the
ALJ's analysis of Plaintiff's limitations in
concentration, persistence, or pace was flawed and runs afoul
of the Fourth Circuit's decision in Mascio v.
Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015); (2) that the
ALJ's analysis of Plaintiff's limitations in
interacting with others was flawed; (3) that the ALJ
improperly assessed the medical opinion evidence; (4) that
the ALJ failed to resolve apparent conflicts between the VE
testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles
(“DOT”); and (5) that the ALJ erred at step two
of the sequential evaluation when determining Plaintiff's
cataract-related vision issues were not severe. Although most
of Plaintiff's arguments lack merit, I agree that the
ALJ's opinion did not comport with Mascio, and I
therefore remand the case for further analysis.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC analysis of
Plaintiff's limitations in concentration, persistence, or
pace failed to comply with the requirements of Mascio v.
Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015). 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 (2018).
Listings 12.00 et seq. pertain to mental
impairments. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00
(2018). 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), 416.920a(b), (c)(2) (2018). 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), 416.920a(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 §
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. 17. The ALJ's analysis stated:
The claimant reported problems with concentration and
completing tasks. However, examinations have not shown
ongoing problems in this area. Although she was unable to
perform serial sevens at the consultative examination in
August 2016, serial sevens were noted to be within normal
limits at an examination in December 2016. Additionally, the
consultative examiner noted that the claimant showed
“great focus” during the interview and was able
to spell “world” backwards.
Tr. 17 (internal citations omitted). In the RFC analysis, the
ALJ included further discussion of the records cited to in
the paragraph B analysis, particularly the 2016 consultative
examination performed by Dr. King. Tr. 20. The ALJ again
noted Plaintiff's poor performance on “serial
sevens” and a word recall test. Tr. 20. The ALJ also
quoted Dr. King's statement that Plaintiff showed
“great focus and a need to please and follow all
directions to the point of perfection.” Tr. 20. The ALJ
further noted that Dr. King made a diagnosis of malingering.
Tr. 20. In weighing the opinion of Dr. King, the ALJ noted
that Dr. King opined that Plaintiff did not have any
limitations in, among other areas, sustained concentration,
or persistence. Tr. 21. However, the ALJ assigned Dr.
King's opinion only “partial weight, ”
because although it was “based on a detailed
examination” and “generally consistent with the
record as a whole, ” the ALJ believed that “some
mental limitations are supported by the record as a
whole.” Tr. 21. The ALJ also discussed treatment notes
from Dr. Saeed, Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist,
including notations of intact concentration, improved
performance on both “serial sevens” and object
recall, and a mini-mental state examination indicating normal
cognition. Tr. 20. Although Dr. Saeed opined that Plaintiff
had marked limitation in areas ...