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Antonio M. v. Commissioner, Social Security

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 3, 2019

Antonio M.
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;

         Dear Counsel:

         On 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         The ALJ 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 (“RFC”) to:

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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         Beginning 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).

         Paragraph 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).

         The ALJ 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).

         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.

         At Step 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 ...

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