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February 23, 2017
  Patterson v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration -- Fourth Circuit
'Show Your Work' - Fourth Circuit Remands SSA Claim for ALJ's Failure to Employ Special Technique in Evaluating Claimant's Mental Impairment

Area of Law: Administrative Law

Issue Presented: Whether an Administrative Law Judge's failure to follow the special technique required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a when evaluating a claimant's mental impairment requires remand or may constitute harmless error.

Brief Summary: On an issue of first impression, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that an Administrative Law Judge's failure to follow the special procedures outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a does not automatically require remand, but that the error was not harmless on the facts of the present case. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's order with instructions to remand to the Administrative Law Judge for appropriate review of claimant's impairment.

Extended Summary: In 2010, the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Constance L. Patterson's ("Patterson") application for disability insurance benefits. Patterson filed a request for a hearing, after which an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") affirmed the SSA's decision. The ALJ found Patterson was not disabled during the period for which she sought benefits based primarily on the conclusions of one doctor. Patterson sought review of the ALJ's decision on the grounds that the ALJ (1) failed to follow the special technique outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a and (2) reached a decision without considering other medical evidence. The SSA's Appeals Council denied relief and Patterson subsequently filed suit in federal district court. The magistrate recommended affirming the SSA, on the grounds that (1) substantial evidence supported all of the ALJ's challenged findings and (2) the ALJ's failure to articulate his findings in accordance with the special technique regulation constituted harmless error. The district court adopted the magistrate's recommendation and affirmed the SSA's decision.

On appeal, Patterson sought to remand the case to the SSA for proceedings consistent with the regulations. Counsel for the SSA conceded the ALJ failed to apply the special technique regulation, but argued remand was unnecessary because the Fourth Circuit could conduct the analysis itself in determining whether substantial evidence supported the ALJ's denial of benefits. The court disagreed. The court found the ALJ's failure to use the special-technique regulation frustrated effective judicial review. In deciding this issue of first impression, the Fourth Circuit noted a split among its sister circuits on whether harmless error review applies. The court disagreed with the Sixth Circuit's holding in Rabbers v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 582 F.3d 647 (6th Cir. 2009), that the special technique regulation offers only non-binding guidance for the benefit of the ALJ. The court reasoned that the plain language of the regulation describes what the SSA must do and the fact that the SSA chose to codify the procedure in a regulation prevents a conclusion that the special technique process was simply for the benefit of ALJs. Further, the court reasoned, an ALJ's failure to properly document application of the special technique would rarely be harmless because such a failure prevents judicial review.

The court noted that although the failure to follow the special technique regulation may not always require remand, the error did require remand in this case because the ALJ did not explain how he weighed all relevant evidence, nor did he explain how he reached his conclusions about the severity of the mental impairment as required by the regulation. The court did not take a position on the merits of Patterson's application for disability benefits because reviewing the ALJ's mental impairment evaluation was beyond the scope of its review. Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's order with instructions to remand to the SSA for proceedings consistent with its own regulations in the interest of judicial efficiency.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: King, Duncan, and Keenan, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: 12/07/2016

Date of Issued Opinion: 01/19/2017

Docket Number: No. 15-2487

Decided: Reversed and remanded with instructions by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Yvette Pappoe, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: William Daniel Mayes, SMITH, MASSEY, BRODIE, GUYNN & MAYES, P.A., Aiken, South Carolina, for Appellant. Evelyn Rose Marie Protano, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Nora Koch, Acting Regional Chief Counsel, Charles J. Kawas, Acting Supervisory Attorney, Office of the General Counsel, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; William N. Nettles, United States Attorney, Marshall Prince, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Duncan

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 02/23/2017 10:47 AM     4th Circuit  

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