By Evelyn Norton

Yesterday, in a published opinion, in the civil case of Mascio v. Colvin, the Fourth Circuit reversed the decision of the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina to grant the motion of the Social Security Administration Commissioner for judgment on the pleadings.

The District Court Found that the SSA Properly Denied Mascio Supplemental Benefits

Plaintiff Bonnilyn Mascio alleged that she was disabled from severe degenerative disc disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, and adjustment disorder.  Thus, Mascio applied for supplemental security income benefits from the SSA.  However, the SSA denied Mascio’s application.

In 2008, an administrative law judge found Mascio was not disabled.  The district court reversed and remanded the decision.  A second administrative law judge also found that Mascio was not disabled from March 15, 2005, to November 30, 2009.  In response, Mascio filed a complaint in the district court.  The district court granted the Commissioner’s  motion for judgment on the pleadings, upholding the denial of benefits to Mascio.

Upon De Novo Review, the Fourth Circuit Concluded Remand was Required

On appeal, Mascio argued that the administrative law judge erred in: (1) not conducting a function-by-function analysis; (2) not including Mascio’s concentration, persistence, or pace limitation in his hypothetical to the vocational expert; (3) determining Mascio’s residual functional capacity before assessing her credibility; and (4) not applying the “great weight rule” to Mascio’s subjective claims of pain.

The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s decision on a motion for judgment on the pleadings de novo.  The Court affirms a disability determination when an administrative law judge applies correct legal standards and substantial evidence supports the factual findings.

The Fourth Circuit Found the Administrative Law Judge Failed to Provide a Thorough Analysis

First, the Court agreed with Mascio that the administrative law judge failed to conduct a function-by-function analysis in assessing Mascio’s residual functional capacity.  The Court found that the administrative law judge’s opinion was “sorely lacking in the analysis needed . . . to review meaningfully [its] conclusions.”  Furthermore, the Court found that the administrative law judge neglected to address conflicting evidence in the record regarding Mascio’s residual functional capacity.  As a result, the Court stated that it was left only to guess as to how the administrative law judge arrived at his conclusions.  Therefore,  remand was necessary.

Second, the Fourth Circuit found that the administrative law judge gave no explanation as to why he did not include Mascio’s concentration, persistence, or pace limitation in the hypothetical tendered to the vocational expert.  The Court entertained possible explanations, such as the administrative law judge found excluding Mascio’s concentration, persistence, or pace limitation from the hypothetical was appropriate because the limitation does not affect her ability to work.  Ultimately, however, the administrative law judge’s failure to provide his explanation on this matter necessitated a remand.

Third, the Fourth Circuit found that the administrative law judge determined Mascio’s residual functional capacity without properly assessing her credibility.  Indeed, the administrative law judge only employed vague boilerplate language stating that he did not believe Mascio’s claims of limitations.  Nowhere else did the administrative law judge explain his decision to discredit Mascio’s statements.  Thus, the Court concluded such a lack of explanation required remand.

Fourth, the Fourth Circuit stated that the “great weight rule” does not exists in this circuit, as Mascio argued.  Mascio simply misread unpublished cases, which are not binding on the Court.  Thus, the Court declined to adopt the rule.

District Court Reversed

The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the grant of the SSA Commissioner’s motion for judgment on the pleadings.

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