United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
HEIDI C. WOODSUM, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO ALTER OR
Honorable Richard A. Jones United States District Judge
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
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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.
THE COURT'S ORIGINAL OPINION AND JUDGMENT
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.
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