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Rebecca B. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 20, 2019

Rebecca B.
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;

          LETTER TO COUNSEL

         Dear Counsel:

         On 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         The ALJ 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. Tr. 24.

         Plaintiff 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.

         First, 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. § 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), 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 § 12.00(F)(2)(c) (2018).

         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. 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 ...


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