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Vance v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Bowling Green Division

October 16, 2019

JAMES E. VANCE, on behalf of MELANIE S. VANCE, deceased PLAINTIFF
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Lanny King, Magistrate Judge

         Previously, the Court entered a memorandum opinion and order and a judgment, which remanded this matter to the Commissioner for calculation and payment of past-due Title II benefits for the closed period between June 1, 2013 and February 24, 2016. (Dockets # 20, 21.) This matter is before the Court on the Commissioner's motion to amend or alter the prior order and judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e), to which Plaintiff responded in opposition. (Dockets # 22, 23.)

         Legal standards governing Rule 59(e) motions

         Because granting a Rule 59(e) motion tends to undermine finality of judgments, it has been described as "an extraordinary remed[y] reserved for the exceptional case." Hamilton v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, No. 4:17-CV-00053-HBB, 2018 WL 2293958, at *1 (quoting Foster v. DeLuca, 545 F.3d 582, 584 (7th Cir. 2008)). The underlying purpose of Rule 59(e) is to allow the district court to correct its own clear errors, sparing the parties and the appellate courts the burden of unnecessary appellate proceedings. Benore v. Comm'r, No. 3: 08-CV-01738, at *1 (citing Howard v. United States, 533 F.3d 472, 475 (6th Cir. 2008)). The purpose is not simply to give unhappy litigants a vehicle to raise new arguments, present new evidence, or re-litigate old matters. Id.

         A Rule 59(e) motion may legitimately be granted in four circumstances: "[1] there is a clear error of law, ... [2] newly discovered evidence, ... [3] an intervening change in controlling law, ... or [4] to prevent manifest injustice." Hamilton v. Comm'r, No. 4:17-CV-00053-HBB, 2018 WL 2293958, at *1 (quoting GenCorp, Inc. v. American International Underwriters, 178 F.3d 804, 834 (6th Cir. 1999)). The Commissioner's position is that the prior opinion contains clear errors of law. (Dockets # 20, 22.)

         Background facts and procedural history

         In June 2010, Plaintiff underwent liver transplant surgery and was subsequently bedridden for approximately two years. (Administrative Record (AR) at 36, 67, 1440.)

         The Administration terminated Plaintiff's receipt of disability benefits effective June 1, 2013 (after she was no longer bedridden) due to medical improvement, and Plaintiff appealed the termination decision.

         On or about February 24, 2016, Plaintiff was hospitalized for several days due to recurrence of hyponatremia symptoms (related to her transplant). (AR at 951.) In December 2016, she was diagnosed with cancer. (ARat70.)

         On January 5, 2018, the Administrative Law Judge (AU) affirmed the Administration's termination decision (due to medical improvement) but found that Plaintiff's condition subsequently deteriorated on February 24, 2016, such that she was again disabled. (AU's decision, AR at 32-48.) The AU's decision thus carved out a closed period of non-disability between June 1, 2013 and February 24, 2016.

         In March 2019, Plaintiff died. (Docket # 17-1.)

         Discussion

         A judicial disturbance of the AU's decision is warranted if 1) the AU's decision was not supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record; or 2) the AU's decision did not comport with applicable legal standards. Ealy v. Comm'r, 594 F.3d 504, 512 (6th Cir. 2010). The Court's prior opinion and order concluded that the closed period of non-disability found by the AU was not supported by substantial evidence (Docket # 20 at 7-8) and also did not comport with applicable legal standards (id. at 8-10). The prior opinion concluded that the AU's closed-period finding was not supported by substantial evidence because "[e]very medical opinion in the administrative record indicates that Plaintiff was unable to attend work regularly or perform even low stress tasks after her June 2010 liver transplant (with no in-between period of non-disability) ... due to the side-effects of medication Plaintiff took to prevent rejection of her transplanted liver." (Docket # 20 at 7.) Alternatively, the prior opinion concluded that the AU's closed-period finding did not "comport with applicable legal standards set forth in [Social Security Ruling] SSR 83-20/' 1983 WL 31249, concerning determination of the date of re-onset of disability (in this case, February 24, 2016 but not earlier). (Id. at 8.)

         The Commissioner argues that the prior opinion erred in finding that the AU's closed-period finding was not supported by substantial evidence. (Docket # 22.) According to the argument, the AU properly rejected "the medical opinions [of] disabling side effects" (due to medication taken to prevent liver rejection during the closed period) because "the treatment notes failed to note severe side effects ... before February 2016." (Docket # 22 at 4 referencing AU's decision at 38, 40-42.) The argument is unpersuasive for two reasons. First, the treating physicians attributed disabling limitations during the closed period to side effects of medication taken to prevent organ rejection. (AR at 1483, 2920, 3272.) The treating physicians were not required to have previously documented these side effects in their treatment notes for their opinions to be believed. An AU may properly discount a treating physician's opinion of debilitating symptoms if that opinion is "inconsistent with [the physician's] own prior assessments and treatment notes." Price v. Comm'r,342 Fed.Appx. 172, 177 (6th Cir. 2009). However, there was no such inconsistency in this case. The contemporaneous treatment notes (during the closed period) would not be expected to contain references to side effects that were already well understood, ongoing, and unchanged. The Commissioner confuses existence and documentation of side effects and assumes that opinions based on side effects are inconsistent with silence in the treatment notes regarding those side effects. Second, to be entitled to controlling ...


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