United States District Court, D. Maryland
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;
November 8, 2018, Plaintiff petitioned this Court to review
the Social Security Administration's
(“SSA's”) final decision to deny her claim
for Supplemental Security Income. 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 claim for benefits on July 8, 2015, alleging an
onset date of August 1, 2014. Tr. 161-67. Her claim was
denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 79-87, 91-92. A
hearing was held on July 10, 2017, before an Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 25-44. 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. 12-20. 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 “anxiety
disorder, mood disorder, and history alcohol abuse.”
Tr. 14. Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but
with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant
could perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; adapt to
routine workplace changes; and occasionally interact with
supervisors, coworkers, and the public.
Tr. 16. After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff
did not have any past relevant work, but could perform jobs
existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr.
19-20. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not
disabled during the relevant time frame. Tr. 20.
makes three primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the ALJ
improperly substituted his own judgment for that of the State
agency psychological medical experts; (2) 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 (3) that the ALJ failed to
resolve apparent conflicts between the VE testimony and the
Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). I
agree that the opinion did not comport with Mascio,
and I therefore remand the case for further analysis.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ substituted his judgment in the
RFC analysis for that of the State agency mental health
consultants. The RFC determination is an issue ultimately
reserved for the ALJ. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.927(d)(2),
416.946(c). An ALJ must base the RFC analysis “on all
of the relevant medical and other evidence, ” 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.945(a)(3), and must assign weight to any relevant
medical opinions, see 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c).
However, the ALJ “need not parrot a single medical
opinion, or even assign ‘great weight' to any
opinions, in determining an RFC assessment.”
Jackson v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec., Civil No.
CCB-13-2086, 2014 WL 1669105, at *2 (D. Md. Apr. 24, 2014).
Here, the ALJ assigned “partial weight” to the
opinions of the State agency mental health consultants. Tr.
18. The ALJ explained the assignment of weight by stating
that the opinions “are consistent with the
claimant's reports of low motivation, as well as notes by
providers and her aunt suggesting she has a difficult time
getting along with others. However, they do not indicate what
the claimant remains able to do, nor how much, or to what
degree, the claimant's symptoms would interfere with her
ability to carry out simple tasks on a consistent
basis.” Tr. 18. While Plaintiff suggests that certain
discrete findings of the mental health consultants should
have been given more weight, she does not articulate why the
reasons offered by the ALJ for his assignment of weight were
inadequate. Accordingly, because the ALJ offered substantial
evidence to support his weighing of the opinion evidence,
Plaintiff's first argument fails.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC analysis 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 (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. § 416.920a(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. §
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) (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 ...