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Pierce v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

April 27, 2018

LAUREL G. PIERCE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS

          SARAH EVANS BARKER, JUDGE

         This case is before the court on the Motion to Dismiss [Dkt. No. 11] filed on April 7, 2017, by Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”). Plaintiff Laurel G. Pierce (“Pierce”) brought her pro se complaint[1] against the Commissioner in an attempt to seek monetary damages for the alleged “financial damage” and “emotional and mental anguish and physical damage” she claims to have suffered during the adjudication of her requests for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Complaint [Dkt. No. 1] at 4. The Commissioner has moved to dismiss Pierce's Complaint for lack of jurisdiction under both 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”). For the reasons detailed in this entry, we GRANT the Commissioner's Motion to Dismiss.

         Background

         In 2006, Pierce sought DIB and SSI, which request was initially denied by the Commissioner. Compl. at ¶¶ 3-4. Pierce sought judicial review of this determination in this Court in 2010, and her case was remanded to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four deficiencies under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) in Pierce v. Comm'r of Social Security, No. 1:10-cv-01451. Pierce was awarded benefits in 2015. Compl. at ¶ 3.

         On March 7, 2016, Pierce brought this action against Carolyn W. Colvin, the then-Acting Commissioner of Social Security, alleging that the nine-year process of obtaining DIB and SSI caused her “unnecessary hardship” and harm to her “emotional and mental health.” Pierce v. Colvin, No. 1:16-cv-00609, 2016 WL 7373821 at *1 (S. D. Ind. Dec. 20, 2016). She sought monetary damages as compensation for these alleged losses, which purportedly occurred while she was awaiting adjudication of her request for benefits. Id.

         The Commissioner moved to dismiss the Complaint, asserting that the Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Pierce's claims because Congress did not waive sovereign immunity for claims against the Social Security Administration, and, alternatively, because Pierce failed to exhaust her administrative remedies with regard to her claims. Id.

         In response to the Commissioner's motion, Pierce informed the Court that she had submitted a notice of tort claim to the Commissioner on July 8, 2016, and that the claim was administratively denied on September 23, 2016. Id. Therefore, according to Pierce, she has exhausted her administrative remedies. Id.

         We granted the Commissioner's Motion to Dismiss on December 20, 2016, holding that that Pierce had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies under both 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and, to the extent she asserted such argument, under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”). Id. at *2. We held that Pierce had made no allegation that she filed a tort claim with the Commissioner, as required by 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and (h), prior to filing the instant suit. Id. Even had she done so, we held, § 405(g) does not contemplate money damages for any delay in awarding benefits under DIB and SSI; rather, it entitles claimants only to back payment of damages wrongfully withheld. Id. (citing Marks v. U.S. Social Security Admin., 906 F.Supp. 1017, 1022 (E.D. VA 1995), vacated in part on other grounds by Marks v. U.S. Social Security Admin., 92 F.3d 1180, 4th Cir. (1996). Pierce failed to bring any such claim. Id.

         Further, even if Pierce were relying on the FTCA as a basis for relief, we rejected such claims. Id. As a threshold matter, we held that 42 U.S.C. § 405(h), the provision governing claims against the Commissioner, precluded the relief Pierce sought. Id. (citing § 405(h) (“No action against the United States, the Commissioner of Social Security or any office or employee thereof shall be brought under section . . . 1346 of Title 28, United States Code, to recover on any claim arising under this subchapter.”). Id. Finally, even if Pierce were permitted under the FTCA to bring a negligence and/or negligent infliction of emotional distress claim against the Commissioner, she had admitted that she did not first present such claims prior to initiating this litigation as required by law. Id. Moreover, this requirement was neither subject to waiver nor surmountable by amendment of the Complaint. Id. (citing McNeil v. United States, 508 U.S. 106, 111-12 (1993) (requirement that an FTCA claim be presented in writing to, and denied by, the agency cannot be waived); Duplan v. Harper, 188 F.3d 1195, 1199 (10th Cir. 1999) (allowing FTCA suits to proceed by amendment “would render the exhaustion requirement meaningless”). Accordingly, we granted the Commissioner's Motion to Dismiss.

         Pierce has neither requested reconsideration of this order nor appealed it to Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Instead, she commenced a new lawsuit on January 31, 2017, claiming that the denial of her tort claim was erroneous, and seeking monetary damages for the alleged “financial damage” and “emotional and mental anguish and physical damage” she allegedly had suffered. Compl. at 4.

         The Commissioner moved for dismissal on April 7, 2017 [Dkt. Nos. 11 and 12 (“Def.'s Br.”)]. Pierce responded on May 10, 2017 [Dkt. No. 13 (“Pl.'s Resp.”)], and the Commissioner filed her reply on May 17, 2017 [Dkt. No. 15 “Pl.'s Reply”]. Thus, the Motion to Dismiss is ripe for ruling by the Court.

         Relevant Legal Framework and Standard of Review

It is well settled that a court's jurisdiction to adjudicate a plaintiff's claims must be established at the time the complaint is filed and at every stage of litigation. Presier v. Newkirk, 422 U.S. 395, 401 (1975). While a plaintiff may amend a complaint to cure defective jurisdictional allegations, no such permission applies in the case of substantial jurisdictional defects. 28 U.S.C. § 1653(g); Newman-Green, Inc. v. Alfonzo-Larrain, 490 U.S. 826, 830-32 (1989).

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure command courts to dismiss any suit over which they lack subject matter jurisdiction. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). In ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), we “must accept the complaint's well-pleaded factual allegations as true and draw reasonable inferences from those allegations in the plaintiff's favor.” Franzoni v. Hartmarx Corp., 30 ...


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