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Jackie W. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 13, 2019

Jackie W.
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration

         Dear Counsel:

         On December 17, 2018, Plaintiff Jackie W. petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's (“SSA's”) final decision to deny his claims for Supplemental Security Income. ECF 1. I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF 11, 14. 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 Plaintiff's motion, grant the Commissioner's motion, and affirm the Commissioner's judgment pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405. This letter explains my rationale.

         After previous denials, Plaintiff protectively filed his claim for benefits on May 14, 2015, alleging an onset date of October 1, 2010.[1] Tr. 237. His claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 128-30, 138-40. A hearing was held on April 17, 2017, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 16-43. 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. 109-20. The Appeals Council (“AC”) issued an unfavorable decision on October 26, 2018, adopting the ALJ's opinion in all critical respects and reevaluating Plaintiff's neurocognitive impairment under the appropriate Listing. Tr. 4-8. Accordingly, the AC's decision, and the ALJ's opinion as adopted therein, constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the agency.

         The AC found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of “depression and neurocognitive disorder.” Tr. 5. Despite these impairments, the AC determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non exertional limitations: the claimant is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive work. He may have only occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the public and cannot provide direct customer service. The claimant may not perform any fast-paced production work.

Tr. 7. The AC adopted the ALJ's steps four and five findings, reached after considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), that Plaintiff could not perform past relevant work as a quality control chemist, but could perform other jobs existing in the national economy. Tr. 6, 118-19. Therefore, the AC concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 7.

         Plaintiff makes two primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the AC and the ALJ erroneously failed to discuss the medical opinions of Drs. Collins and Coleman; and (2) that the hypothetical posed to the VE was flawed and ran afoul of Thomas v. Berryhill, 916 F.3d 307 (4th Cir. 2019). Neither argument has merit for the reasons below.

         First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ and the AC should have considered a 2010 opinion from Dr. Coleman, and a 2012 opinion from Dr. Collins. ECF 11-1 at 7-8. These medical opinions preceded the relevant time period of May 14, 2015 (Plaintiff's alleged onset date) through June 7, 2017 (date of the ALJ's decision), and, therefore, the AC and ALJ permissibly omitted them from their decisions. The AC adopted the ALJ's consideration of the relevant medical evidence of record, including Dr. Coleman's treatment records from 2014 to 2017, and the opinions of consultative examiner, Dr. Langlieb, and psychological evaluator, Dr. Anderson. Tr. 6, 115-17. Furthermore, Plaintiff has not shown how the outcome would have been different had the AC and ALJ considered the opinions.[2]

         Plaintiff further asserts that the AC “made no findings on any medical opinions.” ECF 11-1 at 8. However, the AC expressly “adopt[ed] the [ALJ's] consideration of medical source and non-medical source opinion evidence.” Tr. 6. Plaintiff argues that the AC was required to support its reevaluation of Plaintiff's mental impairments under the revised “paragraph B criteria”[3] with medical support, but the AC did not reevaluate Plaintiff's mental impairments. The AC granted review in this case to evaluate Plaintiff's neurocognitive disorder under Listing 12.02 rather than Listing 12.05, and to remove references to outdated Social Security Rulings, Tr. 5, neither of which Plaintiff contests. Because the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's mental impairments under the revised paragraph B criteria, Tr. 113, the AC did not err by adopting her paragraph B findings, Tr. 6.

         Second, Plaintiff argues that the SSA did not meet its step five burden because (1) the ALJ's inclusion of the term “production rate” does not account for Plaintiff's moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace, and (2) the VE's proffered representative jobs all require a Reasoning Level of 2 whereas the RFC limited Plaintiff to “simple, routine, and repetitive work.” ECF 11-1 at 10-11. These arguments are unpersuasive.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's hypothetical to the VE did not adequately account for his moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace, and suggests that the ALJ erroneously relied on the VE's testimony as substantial evidence. ECF 11-1 at 10-11. For support, Plaintiff cites to Thomas v. Berryhill, 916 F.3d 307 (4th Cir. 2019), in which the Fourth Circuit held that the ALJ's failure to define “production rate or demand pace” frustrated appellate review of whether the RFC properly accounted for the plaintiff's moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace. Id. at 312-13; see also Perry v. Berryhill, 765 Fed.Appx. 869, 873 (4th Cir. 2019) (unpublished) (remanding for ALJ's failure to define “non-production oriented work setting”). This case does not run afoul of Thomas.

         As way of background, 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. ยง 416.920a(c)(4). A moderate limitation signifies the claimant ...


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