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Week 3 (2017)

Week of January 16, 2017 through January 20, 2017

Gregory Birmingham v. PNC Bank, N.A. (Lee 1/18/2017):  The Fourth Circuit held that escrow funds, insurance proceeds, and miscellaneous proceeds constitute incidental property, which entitles the mortgagor to anti-modification protection under § 1322(b)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code. The Court affirmed the decision of the District Court of Maryland, which was consistent with the decision of the Bankruptcy Court. Full Opinion

US v. Donald Blankenship (Wynn 1/19/2017): The Court affirmed the District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia’s decision to convict the appellant of conspiracy to violate federal mine safety laws and regulations. The Court held the district court properly instructed the jury that reckless disregard amounts to criminal willfulness for the purposes of § 820(d) of the Mine Safety & Health Act of 1977. Further, although the Court disapproved of the use of the “two-inference” instruction generally, the use of the instruction in this case did not amount to reversible error because, when viewed as a whole, the district court’s instructions correctly stated the government’s burden. Full Opinion

Constance Patterson v. Commissioner of SSA (Duncan 1/19/2017): The Fourth Circuit held Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) failure to follow the special-technique regulation required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a when evaluating a claimant’s mental impairment does not automatically require remand, but that the error was not harmless on the facts of this case. The court reversed the decision of the District Court for the District of South Carolina with instructions to remand to the ALJ for appropriate review of Patterson’s mental impairment

See below for the full summary of the case. Full Opinion

Metro Machine Corporation v. DOWCP (Traxler 1/20/2017): In this worker’s compensation case, the Fourth Circuit held that although the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to apply the “naturally or unavoidably results” standard provided by § 902(2) of the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (“the Act”) to the employee’s fracture claim, remand for application of that standard would be futile because there was no issue presented regarding avoidability. Accordingly, the Court denied the appellant’s petition for review of the order of the Benefits Review Board that affirmed the decision of the ALJ and granted a claim for medical benefits under the Act. Full Opinion

Highlight Case

Constance Patterson v. Commissioner of SSA, No. 15-2487

Decided: January 19, 2017

The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded decision of the District Court to the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) with instructions to follow the special technique required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a when evaluating Constance Patterson’s mental impairment.

The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Patterson’s application for disability insurance benefits, and an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) affirmed that decision in a subsequent hearing. Patterson sought review of the ALJ’s decision on the grounds that the ALJ failed to follow the procedures outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a (“the special-technique regulation”) and discuss other medical evidence, but the SSA’s appeals council denied her request. Patterson subsequently filed suit in the District Court for the District of South Carolina. The case was heard before a magistrate judge, who decided 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 special-technique regulation. The SSA conceded that the ALJ judge failed to apply the special-technique regulation, but argued remand was unnecessary because the Court could itself apply the special-technique regulation in determining whether substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s denial of benefits. The Court disagreed with the SSA, stating the ALJ’s failure to use the special-technique regulation frustrated effective 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 a result, the Court could not determine whether substantial evidence supported the denial of benefits.

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings.

Full Opinion

Megan Clemency