United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
GLEN E. CONRAD SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
has filed this action challenging the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiffs claim for
a period of disability and disability insurance benefits
under the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C.
§§ 416(i) and 423. Jurisdiction of this court is
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). As reflected by the
memoranda and argument submitted by the parties, the issues
now before the court are whether the Commissioner's final
decision is supported by substantial evidence, or whether
there is "good cause" to necessitate remanding the
case to the Commissioner for further consideration. See 42
U.S.C. § 405(g).
plaintiff, Rikkie Lyn Hollins, was born on December 10, 1970.
She did not graduate from high school but eventually earned a
GED. (Tr. 52). Ms. Hollins has previously worked on a
part-time basis at several restaurants. (Tr. 52, 295).
However, the Law Judge determined that the plaintiffs prior
employment did not reach the level of substantial gainful
activity or qualify as past relevant work for purposes of her
application for benefits.
Hollins applied for a period of disability and disability
benefits on August 6, 2013. In filing her current claim,
plaintiff alleged that she became disabled for all. forms of
substantial gainful employment on November 8, 2012, due to
liver disease, hepatitis C, arthritis, spondylolisthesis,
depression, anxiety, nerve damage, and tendonitis. (Tr. 240,
284). At the time of an administrative hearing on May 10,
2016, the plaintiff amended her application so as to reflect
an alleged disability onset date of November 11, 2013. (Tr.
51). Ms. Hollins now maintains that she has remained disabled
to the present time. The record reveals that Ms. Hollins met
the insured status requirements of the Act through the second
quarter of 2014, but not thereafter. See generally
42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423(a). Consequently, the
plaintiff is entitled to a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits only if she has established
that she became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful
employment on or before June 30, 2014, her date last insured.
Hollins' application was denied upon initial
consideration and reconsideration. She then requested and
received a de novo hearing and review before an
Administrative Law Judge. In an opinion dated December 7,
2016, the Law Judge also determined, after applying the
five-step sequential evaluation process, that Ms. Hollins is
not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The Law Judge
found that Ms. Hollins suffered from several severe
impairments through the date last insured, including right
elbow epicondylitis, lumbar spine spondylolisthesis, carpal
tunnel syndrome, peripheral neuropathy, major depressive
disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder,
but that these impairments did not, either individually or in
combination, meet or medically equal the requirements of a
listed impairment. (Tr. 21). The Law Judge then assessed Ms.
Hollins' residual functional capacity as follows:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the
undersigned finds that, through the date last insured, the
claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform
light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. [§] 404.1567(b),
except she could frequently perform stooping; occasionally
perform stair climbing, kneeling, crouching, and crawling;
and never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant
could frequently use hand controls, handle, and finger with
the right upper extremity. She should avoid concentrated
exposure to vibrations and industrial hazards. The claimant
can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions
and perform simple tasks with occasional interaction with
others. She can adapt to occasional changes in the customary
(Tr. 23-24). Given such a residual functional capacity, and
after considering a vocational expert's responses to
post-hearing interrogatories, the Law Judge determined that,
through the date last insured, Ms. Hollins retained
sufficient functional capacity to perform certain light work
roles existing in significant number in the national economy.
(Tr. 38). Accordingly, the Law Judge concluded that Ms.
Hollins was not disabled at any time from the alleged onset
date through the date last insured, and that she is not
entitled to a period of disability or disability insurance
benefits. See generally 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(g). The Law Judge's opinion was adopted as the
final decision of the Commissioner by the Social Security
Administration's Appeals Council. Having exhausted all
available administrative remedies, Ms. Hollins has now
appealed to this court.
plaintiff may be disabled for certain forms of employment,
the crucial factual determination is whether plaintiff is
disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment.
See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2). There are four
elements of proof which must be considered in making such an
analysis. These elements are summarized as follows: (1)
objective medical facts and clinical findings; (2) the
opinions and conclusions of treating physicians; (3)
subjective evidence of physical manifestations of
impairments, as described through a claimant's testimony;
and (4) the claimant's education, vocational history,
residual skills, and age. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d
1157, 1159-60 (4th Cir. 1971); Underwood v.
Ribicoff, 298 F.2d 850, 851 (4th Cir. 1962).
appeal, Ms. Hollins raises several arguments, including that
the Law Judge's residual functional capacity
("RFC") assessment and subsequent hypothetical
posed to the vocational expert run afoul of the decision by
the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015).
After reviewing the record and considering the parties'
arguments, the court finds "good cause" to remand
the case to the Commissioner for further development and
consideration. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
medical record reveals that Ms. Hollins was diagnosed with
and treated for several mental impairments prior to her date
last insured. On September 13, 2013, Ms. Hollins presented to
Dr. Guyton Register for an initial psychiatric evaluation.
Dr. Register noted that plaintiffs past psychiatric history
included "prior treatment with Celexa for depression and
anxiety," and that her treatment for hepatitis C
"would place her at a high risk for worsening of psych
illness." (Tr. 624, 626). Dr. Register took plaintiff
off of Celexa and added Effexor and Xanax to her treatment
regimen. (Tr. 626-27). He also recommended that Ms. Hollins
pursue "supportive psychotherapy focused on coping with
chronic mental illness." (Tr. 626). Plaintiff saw Dr.
Register on several occasions prior to her date last insured.
Dr. Register ultimately diagnosed plaintiff with major
depressive disorder, recurrent, moderate; panic disorder; and
anxiety. (Tr. 633). He increased plaintiffs psychotropic
medications in an effort to stabilize her anxiety and mood,
and noted that plaintiffs "chronic medical issues...
complicate [her] psychiatric treatment including obesity and
fatigue." (Tr. 636, 732, 739).
Hollins was also treated for mental health issues at the Free
Clinic of the New River Valley, where she was diagnosed with
depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and panic
disorder. (Tr. 839, 853, 862). A mental health assessment
administered in July of 2014, less than a month after
plaintiffs insured status expired, revealed that plaintiff
"scored high on depression, PTSD, Panic, and Generalized
Anxiety." (Tr. 840). Examination notes from the Free
Clinic also indicate that plaintiff struggled with intense
anger toward her ex-husband and expressed homicidal ideation
on several occasions. (Tr. 845, 859-62, 870).
state agency psychologists, Dr. David Deaver and Dr. Richard
Luck, completed two forms regarding plaintiffs mental health:
a Psychiatric Review Technique form and a Mental Residual
Functional Capacity Assessment form. On the first form, both
psychologists noted that plaintiff has moderate difficulties
in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace. (Tr. 102,
119). On the second form, both psychologists opined that Ms.
Hollins has moderate limitations in the category of
"sustained concentration and persistence." (Tr.
102, 124). More specifically, Dr. Deaver and Dr. Luck noted
that Ms. Hollins' ability to maintain attention and
concentration for extended periods is moderately limited, as
is her "ability to complete a normal workday and
workweek without interruptions from psychologically based
symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an
unreasonable number and length of rest periods." (Tr.
106-07, 124). Consistent with the opinions offered by the
state agency psychologists, the Law Judge found at step three
of the sequential evaluation process that plaintiffs
impairments result in "moderate difficulties" with
"concentration, persistence, or pace." (Tr. 23).
assessing plaintiffs residual functional capacity
("RFC"), the Law Judge indicated that he had given
"some weight" to the mental assessments completed
by the state agency psychologists. (Tr. 36). As relevant
here, the Law Judge found that "the degree of
restriction they assessed is well supported in terms of. . .
maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace." (Tr.
36). Because Ms. Hollins "required continuous medication
management and psychotherapy to treat her mental
impairments," the Law Judge agreed that plaintiff was
"moderately restricted" in this area of functioning
through the date last insured. (Tr. 36) (internal quotation
marks omitted). Nonetheless, the Law Judge did not expressly
reference plaintiff s moderate limitations in concentration,
persistence, or pace in the RFC assessment or the
hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert.
Instead, the Law Judge indicated that Ms. Hollins can
"carry out simple instructions and perform simple tasks
with occasional interaction with others." (Tr. 24).
court's view, the difficulty with the Law Judge's
decision is two-fold. First, the Law Judge failed to explain
how the RFC assessment properly captured Ms. Hollins'
moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace.
In Mascio, the Fourth Circuit explained that
"the ability to perform simple tasks differs from the
ability to stay on task," and that "[o]nly the
latter limitation would account for a claimant's
limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace." 780
F.3d at 638. Thus, limiting a claimant to simple tasks or
unskilled work, without any further explanation, is
insufficient under Mascio. See id.
("Perhaps the ALJ can explain why Mascio's moderate,
limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace at step
three does not translate into a limitation in Mascio's
residual functional capacity .... But because the ALJ here
gave no explanation, a remand is in order."); see
also Perry v. Berryhill, No. 18-1076, 2019 U.S. App.
LEXIS 6969, at *8 (4th Cir. Mar. 8, 2019) ("The missing
explanation in this case is particularly important because it
is undisputed that Perry's stroke ...