United States District Court, D. Maryland
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;
September 13, 2018, Plaintiff Carrie S. petitioned this Court
to review the Social Security Administration's
(“SSA's”) final decision to deny her claim
for disability benefits. ECF 1. I have considered the
parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF 13, 16.
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 her claims for benefits on July 27, 2015,
alleging disability beginning January 1, 2015. Tr. 188-201.
Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr.
105-12, 116-19. A hearing was held on June 27, 2017, before
an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 30-62.
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. 16-24. The Appeals
Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff's request for
review, Tr. 1-6, so the ALJ's decision constitutes the
final, reviewable decision of the SSA.
found that, during the relevant period, Plaintiff suffered
from the severe impairments of “degenerative disc
disease, congestive heart failure with cardiomyopathy, and
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.” Tr 18. 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 the claimant can only occasionally climb
ramps and stairs, with no climbing of ladders, ropes, and
scaffolds; can only occasionally stoop, crouch, crawl, or
kneel; and must have the option to change position between
standing and sitting every 30 minutes, but will do so while
remaining on-task at their workstation.
Tr. 20. After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff
could not perform any of her past relevant work, but that she
could perform other jobs available in significant numbers in
the national economy. Tr. 22-23. Accordingly, the ALJ
concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 23.
argues that the ALJ erred when analyzing her depression and
anxiety by failing to apply the special technique mandated by
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a, 416.920a. ECF 13-1 at
I agree that the ALJ erred, and that this error hinders
judicial review. In remanding for further explanation, I
express no opinion as to whether the ALJ's ultimate
conclusion that Plaintiff is not entitled to benefits is
two of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ must determine
whether a claimant has a medically determinable impairment
that is “severe, ” or a combination of
impairments that is “severe.” 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An
impairment or combination of impairments is
“severe” if it significantly limits an
individual's ability to perform basic work activities.
§§ 404.1522, 416.922. For mental impairments, the
ALJ employs a “special technique, ” and first
looks to “pertinent symptoms, signs, and laboratory
findings to determine whether you have a medically
determinable mental impairment(s).” §§
404.1520a(b)(1), 416.920a(b)(1). After finding a medically
determinable mental impairment exists, the ALJ rates a
claimant's degree of limitation in each of the four
“paragraph B” functional areas, namely: (1)
understand, remember, or apply information; (2) interact with
others; (3) concentrate, persist, or maintain pace; and (4)
adapt or manage oneself. §§ 404.1520a(c),
the ALJ assigned a rating to the “paragraph B criteria,
” but his explanation was noticeably lacking. The
ALJ's analysis stated,
[T]he available evidence supports no more than
‘mild' limitation in each of the four functional
areas, including in social functioning, which was the area
where most of [the plaintiff's] complaints centered. Her
reported daily activities, when weighed with her limited
treatment and documented symptoms, were not indicative of
more than mild limitation in even this area.
Tr. 19. For support, the ALJ cited generally to
Plaintiff's treatment records and gave “significant
weight” to the psychiatric evaluation conducted by Dr.
Taller. Id. The ALJ did not name any of
Plaintiff's daily activities that he purportedly weighed,
nor did he discuss what he considered to be her
“documented symptoms.” Regarding her
“limited treatment, ” the ALJ noted that
Plaintiff received care for her mental health exclusively
from her primary care provider. Id.
failed to mention or discuss the medical opinions of Drs.
Fowler and Ashe. See Tr. 365 (noting that
Plaintiff's mental impairments were “severe enough
to prevent [Plaintiff] from working [or] participating in a
work, training or educational activity”), Tr. 384
(noting that Plaintiff's symptoms, including depression
and anxiety, would “frequently” “interfere
with attention and concentration needed to perform even
simple work tasks”). In Patterson, the Fourth
Circuit reasoned that the ALJ's failure to use the
“special technique” was not harmless error where
the ALJ “did not address conflicting evidence, or
explain away contrary findings of other doctors in a
comprehensive manner.” 846 F.3d at 662. Here, the ALJ
similarly failed to address the conflicting medical opinions
in the record. The ALJ instead cited generally to over thirty
pages of treatment records for the assertion that Plaintiff
had “been prescribed appropriate medications for both
[depression and anxiety].” Tr. 19. Within those cited
treatment records, however, Dr. Fowler observed that
Plaintiff's mental health symptoms were “not
controlled.” Tr. 421. Dr. Fowler noted that Plaintiff
should continue to take Clonazepam up to three times a day as
needed for anxiety and panic attacks, and started Plaintiff
on an antidepressant. Id. At the hearing, Plaintiff
testified that she had recently been prescribed a different
medication for her depression, Tr. 42, suggesting that
perhaps Plaintiff's depression symptoms were not under
control. Because the ALJ did not offer an explanation or a
more precise citation to support his conclusion, this Court
cannot review his analysis.
the ALJ referenced the area of “social functioning,
” Tr. 19, which is no longer one of the areas of mental
functioning under the regulations. It is not possible to
determine, from the ALJ's cursory and conclusory
analysis, whether the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's mental
impairments under the current rules.
Commissioner argues that the ALJ did follow the special
technique, and that, even if the ALJ erred, the error is
harmless. ECF 16-1 at 7. Although the failure to follow the
special technique may be harmless in some cases, “such
a failure prevents, or at least substantially ...