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Candace T. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 10, 2019

Candace T.
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration

         LETTER TO COUNSEL

         Dear Counsel:

         On August 30, 2018, Plaintiff petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) final decision to deny her claims for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties' cross-motions for Summary Judgment, and Plaintiff's reply. (ECF Nos. 17, 20, 21). 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 her claims for benefits on December 3, 2013, alleging an onset date of March 31, 2009. (Tr. 282-91). Her claims were denied initially, and again on reconsideration. (Tr. 108-11, 113-14). A hearing was held on May 16, 2017, before Administrative Law Judge Tierney Carlos (“ALJ”). (Tr. 39-84). 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. 13-32). The Appeals Council declined review (Tr. 1-6), and consequently 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 “degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; lumbosacral radiculopathy; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; degenerative join disease of the right knee; chronic pain syndrome; anxiety; and depression.” (Tr. 16). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

[P]erform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and she must avoid all exposure to unprotected heights. The claimant can perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, but not at a production pace. She can make simple work-related decisions and have occasional contact with supervisors, coworkers, and the public.

Tr. 21.

         After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work, but could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 29-31). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 30-31).

         Plaintiff makes two primary arguments on appeal: (1) the ALJ's analysis of Plaintiff's limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace was flawed and runs afoul of the Fourth Circuit's decision in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015); and (2) that the ALJ failed to resolve apparent conflicts between the VE testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). I agree that the ALJ's opinion did not comport with Mascio, and I therefore remand the case for further analysis.

         First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC analysis of Plaintiff's limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace 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. Id. 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 (2018). Listings 12.00 et seq. pertain to mental impairments. Id. at § 12.00 (2018). 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 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. §§ 404.1520a(b), (c)(2), 416.920a(b), (c)(2) (2018). 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. §§ 404.1520a(c)(4), 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'x 1 § 12.00(F)(2)(c) (2018).

         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. Mascio, 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, ...


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