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Woodsum v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

March 28, 2017

HEIDI C. WOODSUM, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO ALTER OR AMEND JUDGMENT

          Honorable Richard A. Jones United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the Court on the Commissioner of Social Security's Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment. Dkt. 16. The matter has been fully briefed. After considering and reviewing the record, the Court concludes that this Court's original opinion and judgment did not rest on any manifest error of law or fact and, accordingly, the motion is denied.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Rule 59(e) provides that a party may file a “motion to alter or amend a judgment.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e). “Since specific grounds for a motion to amend or alter are not listed in the rule, the district court enjoys considerable discretion in granting or denying the motion.” McDowell v. Calderon, 197 F.3d 1253, 1255 n.1 (9th Cir. 1999) (en banc) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). But amending a judgment after its entry remains “an extraordinary remedy which should be used sparingly.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). In general, there are four basic grounds upon which a Rule 59(e) motion may be granted: (1) if such motion is necessary to correct manifest errors of law or fact upon which the judgment rests; (2) if such motion is necessary to present newly discovered or previously unavailable evidence; (3) if such motion is necessary to prevent manifest injustice; or (4) if the amendment is justified by an intervening change in controlling law. Id.; Allstate Ins. Co. v. Herron, 634 F.3d 1101, 1112 (9th Cir. 2011). This Rule “may not be used to relitigate old matters, or to raise arguments or present evidence that could have been made prior to the entry of judgment.” Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471, 485 n.5 (2008) (citation omitted).

         The Commissioner's motion does not identify which ground for relief it relies upon. Dkt. 16. However, the motion does not appear to present newly discovered or previously unavailable evidence, allege manifest injustice or cite an intervening change in controlling law. Id. Accordingly, the Court will construe the Commissioner's motion as alleging a manifest error in law or fact.

         II. THE COURT'S ORIGINAL OPINION AND JUDGMENT

         In the original opinion, the Court found that the ALJ erred in failing to apply a proper drug addiction and alcoholism (DAA) analysis and that the error was not harmless. Dkt. 15. Specifically, the Court found, in relevant part, that,

[In] the first instance, the ALJ should have evaluated the severity of Ms. Woodsum's polysubstance abuse at step two. Moreover, given that substance abuse plays a significant role in the ALJ's evaluation of the evidence, the ALJ was required to conduct a specific DAA analysis. 20 C.F.R §§ 404.1535, 416.935; 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C). Here, the ALJ erred in failing to do so. The ALJ did not mention or discuss the application of a DAA analysis in his decision. As noted above, the ALJ was required to conduct the five-step inquiry without first determining the impact of substance abuse on Ms. Woodsum's other impairments. See Bustamante, 262 F.3d 949. Instead, as evidenced by the findings mentioned above, the ALJ improperly conducted the initial five-step inquiry prematurely separating out the impact of DAA on Ms. Woodsum's mental impairments.
In sum, although substance abuse was a major consideration in the ALJ's nondisability determination, the ALJ erred by failing to apply the regulations and Ninth Circuit case law requiring the ALJ to apply a specific two-step DAA analysis. This error is not harmless as it renders the ALJ's findings here unreliable. Remand is required because the Court cannot itself apply the five-step disability inquiry, including the two-step substance abuse analysis. Rather it is the role of the ALJ, not the Court, to properly evaluate Ms. Woodsum's disability claim….
The Court is aware that the parties did not specifically challenge the ALJ's failure to apply the two-step DAA analysis. … Normally, the Court need not address errors that are not specifically and distinctly argued. However, the ALJ's failure to apply the proper DAA analysis is in the nature of a structural error and central to the validity of the disability determination process… Moreover, even if considered under a harmless error analysis, the ALJ's “muddled consideration” of Ms. Woodsum's substance abuse prevents a clear determination that the error was harmless.

Dkt. 14 at 8-10. The Court also noted that, although Ms. Woodsum did not directly challenge the ALJ's failure to apply the DAA analysis, she did “challenge the ALJ's rejection of Dr. [Terilee] Wingate's opinions based on her failure to account for the impact of substance abuse on Ms. Woodsum's mental impairments.” Id. at 10. The Court further found that “the ALJ erred in failing to address Dr. Wingate's November 2011 opinion entirely and that, in reevaluating the evidence and applying the proper DAA analysis on remand, the ALJ should also address that opinion.” Id. at 9. Accordingly, the Court reversed the Commissioner's final decision and remanded the matter for further administrative proceedings. Id. at 10-11.

         III. DISCUSSION

         The Commissioner does not dispute that the ALJ erred in failing to conduct the two-step DAA analysis required by the regulations and Ninth Circuit case law. Dkt. 16. Rather, the Commissioner appears to argue that the Court committed a manifest error of law or fact in not finding the ALJ's error was harmless. Id. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's failure to perform the two-step DAA separation analysis in this case was harmless because the ALJ “expressly identified a period of abstinence and relied on a medical opinion from that period.” Id. at ...


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