United States District Court, D. Maryland
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;
December 13, 2018, Plaintiff Antonio M. petitioned this Court
to review the Social Security Administration's
(“SSA's”) final decision to deny his claims
for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security
Income. ECF 1. I have considered the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF 14, 15. 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.
protectively filed his claims for benefits on August 14,
2015, alleging an onset date of May 25, 2015. Tr. 195-207.
His claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr.
84-117. A hearing was held on July 26, 2017, before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 33-81.
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. 13-26. The Appeals
Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff's request for
further review, Tr. 1-6, so the ALJ's decision
constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the SSA.
found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of
“degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine;
congestive heart failure (CHF); hypertension; obesity;
depressive disorder; and schizoaffective disorder.” Tr.
16. Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except that the claimant can stand and/or walk for
two hours in an eight hour workday with normal breaks; sit
for six hours in an eight hour workday with normal breaks;
and lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds
frequently. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps,
stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can
occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. The
claimant is limited to understanding/remembering/carrying out
simple instructions involving routine tasks. The claimant is
limited to occasional contact with the general public.
Tr. 19. After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff
could not perform past relevant work as a poultry farm
worker, but could perform other jobs existing in the national
economy. Tr. 24-26. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that
Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 26.
makes several arguments on appeal: (1) that
the ALJ either did not assign weight or assigned insufficient
weight to the opinions of treating physicians; (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); (3) that the ALJ's
assessment of Plaintiff's social functioning limitation
was insufficient; (4) that the ALJ's limitation to
occasional performance of tasks is not consistent with the
requirements of a complete workday; (5) that the VE's
testimony is inconsistent with the Dictionary of Occupational
Titles; and (6) that the ALJ erred at Step Two by failing to
deem Plaintiff's sleep apnea and carpal tunnel syndrome
to be severe impairments. While many of Plaintiff's
arguments lack merit, I agree that the ALJ's analysis did
not comply with Mascio, and that the ALJ's
decision with respect to Plaintiff's social functioning
limitations requires additional explanation. I therefore
grant remand under sentence four.
with the successful arguments, 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 Plaintiff's “moderate
difficulties” in concentration, persistence, or pace.
Id. At Step Three of the sequential evaluation, the
ALJ 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'x 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).
B consists of four broad functional areas assessing the
ability to: (1) understand, remember, or apply information;
(2) interact with others; (3) concentrate, persist, or
maintain pace; and (4) adapt or manage 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).
employs the “special technique” to rate a
claimant's degree of limitation in each 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 ALJ 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 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'x 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.
Three in the instant case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had
moderate limitations maintaining concentration, persistence,
or pace. Tr. 19. The ALJ's analysis stated:
The claimant has testified that he has trouble concentrating
and that he has a different “reality” than
others. However, he also testified that he could watch
television and that physical pain is what prevents him from
reading. Moreover, in November 2016, January 2017, April
2017, May 2017, and June 2017 visits to Dr. Scotto, the
claimant showed good insight, good judgment, full