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Phillips v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Beaufort Division

December 17, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on a motion to alter or amend the court's August 3, 2018 judgment, which remanded this case to the Social Security Administration for further review. For the reasons set forth below, the court denies the Commissioner's motion to alter or amend judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Sherry Lynn Phillips (“Phillips”) filed an application for disability insurance benefits on October 24, 2014, alleging disability beginning on March 15, 2014. The Social Security Agency denied Phillips's claim initially and on reconsideration. Phillips requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and the ALJ held a hearing on May 18, 2016. The ALJ denied Phillips's claim on August 10, 2016. Phillips then requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, rendering the ALJ's decision as the final action of the Commissioner.

         On July 21, 2017, Phillips filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's decision denying her benefits, arguing in part that the ALJ failed to take into account her limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace (“CPP”). The R&R agreed and recommended that the case be remanded. The R&R explained that the ALJ's decision did not comply with Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015), because the ALJ's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination did not discuss how Phillips's CPP limitations would affect her ability to work an eight-hour workday. This court summarily affirmed the R&R on August 3, 2018.

         The Commissioner filed a motion to alter or amend judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) on August 27, 2018, and Phillips responded on September 11, 2018. The motion is now ripe for review.

         II. STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) governs motions to alter or amend a judgment. Though the rule does not provide a standard under which a district court may grant such motions, the Fourth Circuit has recognized “three grounds for amending an earlier judgment: (1) to accommodate an intervening change in controlling law; (2) to account for new evidence not available at trial; or (3) to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice.” Pac. Ins. Co. v. Am. Nat'l Fire Ins. Co., 148 F.3d 396, 403 (4th Cir. 1998) (citing EEOC v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 116 F.3d 110, 112 (4th Cir. 1997); Hutchinson v. Staton, 994 F.2d 1076, 1081 (4th Cir. 1993)). Rule 59(e) provides an “extraordinary remedy that should be used sparingly.” Pac. Ins. Co., 148 F.3d at 403 (internal citation omitted); Wright v. Conley, 2013 WL 314749, at *1 (D.S.C. Jan. 28, 2013). Rule 59(e) motions “may not be used to relitigate old matters, or to raise arguments or present evidence that could have been raised prior to the entry of judgment.” Pac. Ins. Co., 148 F.3d at 403 (citation and internal quotations omitted). Nor are Rule 59(e) motions opportunities to rehash issues already ruled upon because a litigant is displeased with the result. Tran v. Tran, 166 F.Supp.2d 793, 798 (S.D.N.Y. 2001); see also United States ex rel. Becker v. Westinghouse Savannah River Co., 305 F.3d 284, 290 (4th Cir. 2002) (“Mere disagreement does not support a Rule 59(e) motion.”).


         The Commissioner argues that (1) the ALJ did address the issuing of working a full workday by endorsing medical opinions that addressed Phillips's ability to do so; and (2) Mascio is distinguishable from the instant case and does not compel a remand. The court is not persuaded by either argument.

         The Commissioner first argues that the ALJ addressed Phillips's ability to stay on task throughout an eight hour workday “by adopting uniformly consistent medical opinions directly on point.” ECF No. 25 at 2. The Commissioner then cites to various medical records to show that the information about Phillips's ability to work a full work day did exist in the record. First, the Commissioner discusses the opinion of Dr. Lucas, who left blank the space on his forms that asked about Phillips's work-related limitations. The Commissioner argues that “[t]he ALJ drew a reasonable inference that Plaintiff did not have persistence or task-based limitations and that treating physician Dr. Lucas was indeed endorsing Plaintiff's good-to-adequate ability to perform and sustain work activity without further restriction.” Id. at 3. The ALJ stated that these medical records reflect that Phillips “retained a capacity for work activity” and “was able to work.” Tr. 63-64.

         The Commissioner also points to Dr. Whitley's records, which state that Phillips's “ability to tolerate stress, changes, demands, and pressure during a normal work day would be moderately impacted by her observed pain and to a lesser exten[t] her depression.” ECF No. 25 at 3 (citing Tr. 628). The Commissioner argues that “the ALJ reasonably read this report to support a capacity for work activity without the need for additional persistence or task-based limitation: ‘The findings of the mental consultative examiner also demonstrate a capacity for work.'” Id. at 4 (citing Tr. 64).

         Finally, the Commissioner notes that the state agency psychological experts opined that Phillips had a “‘moderate' limitation in . . . the ability to ‘complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods, '” and the “moderate limitation” was translated “into a specific finding that Plaintiff ‘is able to carry out simple tasks for two hours at a time without special supervision, and would not have an unacceptable number of work absences due to psychological symptoms.'” Id. (citing Tr. 106-07, 126). With regard to these medical opinions, the ALJ stated that he considered the findings “to the effect that the claimant can perform a range of unskilled light work” and “[t]hose findings further support the residual functional capacity described above.” Tr. 65.

         While the evidence that the Commissioner pointed to may have been sufficient for the ALJ to find Phillips able to work for a full workday, there is simply nothing in his decision to show that he made this finding. The ALJ's conclusory statements about Phillips being able to work do ...

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