United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division
TIMOTHY M. CAIN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
plaintiff, Mary Alice Ward (“Ward”), brought this
action pursuant to the Social Security Act
(“SSA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of a final decision of
the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”), denying her claims for Disabled
Widow’s Benefits (“DWB”) and Disability
Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). In accordance with 28
U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a),
D.S.C., this matter was referred to a magistrate judge for
pretrial handling. Now before this court is the magistrate
judge’s Report and Recommendation
(“Report”), recommending that the court affirm
the Commissioner’s decision. (ECF No.
In the Report, the magistrate judge sets forth the relevant
facts and legal standards, which are incorporated herein by
reference. Ward has filed objections to the Report, (ECF No.
22), and the Commissioner has responded to those objections
(ECF No. 23). Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for
applied for DIB on October 12, 2011, and DWB on November 28,
2012, alleging in both applications disability beginning on
October 15, 2010, when she was fifty-five years old.
Ward’s application was denied initially and on
reconsideration. On October 9, 2013, an Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”) heard testimony from Ward and her
sister. On November 5, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision
concluding that Ward was not disabled and denying her claims.
In his decision, the ALJ found that Ward suffered from the
following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease;
osteoarthritis of the knees; and conversion disorder. (ECF
No. 19 at 3). Despite Ward’s limitations, the ALJ found
that Ward was capable of performing past relevant work as a
housekeeper. (Id. at 4). Ward sought review of her
case by the Appeals Council, which denied her request on
January 27, 2015, making the ALJ’s decision the final
action of the Commissioner. This action followed.
federal judiciary has a limited role in the administrative
scheme established by the SSA. Section 405(g) of the Act
provides, “the findings of the Commissioner of Social
Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial
evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .” 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). “Substantial evidence has been defined . . . as
more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.”
Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir.
1964). This standard precludes a de novo review of the
factual circumstances that substitutes the court’s
findings for those of the Commissioner. Vitek v.
Finch, 438 F.2d 1157 (4th Cir. 1971). Thus, in its
review, the court may not “undertake to re-weigh
conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or
substitute [its] own judgment for that of the
[Commissioner].” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585,
589 (4th Cir. 1996).
“[f]rom this it does not follow . . . that the findings
of the administrative agency are to be mechanically accepted.
The statutorily granted right of review contemplates more
than an uncritical rubber stamping of the administrative
agency.” Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279
(4th Cir. 1969). Rather, “the courts must not abdicate
their responsibility to give careful scrutiny to the whole
record to assure that there is a sound foundation for the
[Commissioner’s] findings, and that this conclusion is
rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58.
review, the court gleans two objections from Ward’s
arguments: (1) the Report’s analysis of Ward’s
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) affords
weight to information contained in the record but not
discussed in the ALJ’s written opinion; and (2) the
Report runs counter to the Fourth Circuit’s opinion in
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015),
because it fails to identify whether the ALJ conducted an
adequate function-by-function analysis during his RFC
assessment and recommends finding that the ALJ properly
accounted for Ward’s moderate limitations in
concentration, persistence, or pace.
first objection, Ward claims that information cited by the
magistrate judge while evaluating the propriety of the
ALJ’s RFC assessment should not be considered because
doing so would violate this court’s limited review.
(ECF No. 22 at 3-4). The court finds this objection has no
merit. In making her recommendation, the magistrate judge
predominately cited to portions of the ALJ’s written
decision discussing Ward’s past psychological
disposition. (ECF No. 19 at 8). The only section of the
Report that cites to the record outside of the ALJ’s
written decision does so in reference to a mental RFC
assessment completed in June 2012. (Id. at 9). Ward
appears to argue that the magistrate judge’s citation
to this portion of the record erroneously discharges the ALJ
of his responsibility to properly articulate his RFC findings
by referencing information in the record. (see ECF
No. 22 at 4-5). However, this argument ultimately proves
circular, as the Report only discusses this section of the
record to highlight information specifically acknowledged by
the ALJ in his written decision. (ECF No. 19 at 9).
Additionally, the citation to the RFC assessment is in
response to an argument advanced in Ward’s response
brief, in which she attempts to rebut the ALJ’s
findings with information contained in the cited material.
(See ECF Nos. 17 at 3; 19 at 9). Accordingly, the
court overrules this objection.
second objection is also unpersuasive because the facts
undergirding the Fourth Circuit’s analysis in
Mascio are dissimilar to the facts presented here.
The ALJ uses five steps to determine a claimant’s
disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The relevant steps
in this case are steps three and four. At step three, if the
ALJ determines that a claimant’s medically determinable
impairments are not sufficient to automatically entitle the
claimant to disability status under the Code of Federal
Regulations, then the analysis proceeds to the next step.
(ECF No. 10-2 at 16-17). Between steps three and four, the
ALJ must determine the claimant’s RFC, which is an
individual’s ability to do physical and mental work
activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from the
individual’s impairments. (Id. at 17). At step
four, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has the
ability to perform any past relevant work. (Id.)
case, the ALJ determined at step three that “[w]ith
regard to concentration, persistence or pace, the claimant
has moderate difficulties.” (ECF No. 10-2 at 20). This
determination was based on an examination of Ward’s
abilities, including findings that Ward “was able to be
redirected to answering questions appropriately when her
thought processes and content were focused on her son’s
death.” (Id.) Ultimately, at step three, the
ALJ determined that Ward did not have an impairment that
automatically entitled her to disability status under the
Code of Federal Regulations. (Id. at 19-20).
However, the findings concerning Ward’s concentration,
persistence, or pace were directly reflected in the RFC
assessment the ALJ undertook before proceeding to step four.
(Id. at 20).
contends that the ALJ’s RFC assessment is flawed under
Mascio because he failed to conduct a
function-by-function analysis and did not properly account
for her limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace.
In Mascio, the Fourth Circuit stated that there is
no per se rule requiring remand when an ALJ fails to
perform a function-by-function analysis, but “[r]emand
may be appropriate . . . where an ALJ fails to assess a
claimant’s capacity to perform relevant functions,
despite contradictory evidence in the record, or where other
inadequacies in the ALJ’s analysis frustrate meaningful
review.” 780 F.3d at 636 (quoting Cichocki v.
Astrue, 729 F.3d 172, 177 (2nd Cir. 2013)) (internal
quotation marks omitted). Here, the ALJ noted limitations
stemming from Ward’s mental impairments in his written
decision, which at the very least provides this court with a
sufficient basis to conduct a meaningful review. (ECF No.
10-2 at 19-25). Further, the ALJ discussed varying evidence
as to Ward’s RFC in his written decision, and
formulated Ward’s RFC based on information contained in
a June 2012 state agency assessment, testimonial evidence,
and medical records. (Id. at 22-25) Unlike in
Mascio, the ALJ explained in his written decision
why, in light of evidence contained in the record, he
afforded Ward’s June 2012 state agency assessment great
weight. (Id. at 25). Hence, Ward’s argument
directed at the ALJ’s function-by-function analysis is
Mascio does not provide a basis for disturbing the
ALJ’s RFC findings with regard to Ward’s moderate
limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace.
Addressing these same mental limitations in Mascio,
the Fourth Circuit noted a difference between the ability to
perform simple tasks and the ability to stay on task. 780
F.3d at 638. Under the facts before it, the Fourth Circuit
determined that remand was necessary because the ALJ gave no
explanation regarding whether the claimant’s
limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace affected
her RFC. Id. But here, as noted above, the ALJ
accounted for Ward’s limitations in determining her RFC
before proceeding to step four. The ALJ’s
acknowledgement of limitations identified in the state agency
assessment, medical records, and testimonial evidence
provides a sufficient basis for his findings of fact,
(see ECF No. 10-2 at 19-25); see also Jones v.
Colvin, No. 7:14-cv-00273, 2015 WL 5056784, at *10-12
(W.D. Va. Aug. 20, 2015) (“An ALJ may account for a
claimant’s limitation with concentration, persistence,
or pace by restricting the claimant to simple, routine,
unskilled work where the record supports this conclusion,
either through physician testimony, medical source
statements, consultative examinations, or other evidence that
is sufficiently evident to the reviewing court.”);
Hutton v. Colvin, No. 2:14-cv-63, 2015 WL 3757204,
at *5 (N.D. W.Va. Jun. 16, 2015) (finding that the ALJ
adequately accounted for limitations in concentration,
persistence, or pace where he reviewed all of the
claimant’s pertinent medical evidence in the record),
and it is not the role of this court to reweigh the evidence.
Craig, 76 ...