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Geraldine S. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 20, 2019

Geraldine S.
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;

         LETTER TO COUNSEL

         Dear Counsel:

         On 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         The ALJ 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 (“RFC”) to:

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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         First, 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.

         Next, 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. § 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. § 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).

         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 ...


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