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Clara P. v. Saul

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

October 24, 2019

CLARA P., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ENTRY ON JUDICIAL REVIEW

          TANYA WALTON PRATT, JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Clara P.[1] requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “SSA”). For the following reasons, the Court dismisses Clara P.'s Complaint with prejudice and affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On March 9, 2016, Clara P. received a notice of a change of benefits from the SSA explaining that social security benefits paid to widows were reduced “if they also received a government pension based on their own work.” (Filing No. 9-2 at 41.) Clara P. requested reconsideration, (Filing No. 9-2 at 44-45), and the SSA confirmed their initial determination, (Filing No. 9-2 at 65). Clara P. then requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge. (Filing No. 9-2 at 68.) Administrative Law Judge Monica LaPolt (the “ALJ”) conducted a hearing on May 23, 2018, at which Clara P., unrepresented by counsel, a witness, her daughter, Michelle W., and a claims technical expert in the SSA's payment center, John Kroner, appeared and testified. (Filing No. 9-3 at 106-74; Filing No. 9-4 at 1-28.) The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on June 11, 2018. (Filing No. 9-1 at 13.) Clara P. requested review of the ALJ's decision. (Filing No. 9-3 at 95.) The Appeals Council denied review on November 6, 2018. (Filing No. 9-1 at 6.) On December 21, 2018, Clara P. timely filed this civil action, asking the Court to review the final decision of the Commissioner. (Filing No. 1.) Following the Commissioner's filing of the transcript, (Filing No. 9), Clara P. filed a brief in support of her Complaint, (Filing No. 13), and motions to correct her brief, (Filing No. 14), and to add to her Complaint, (Filing No. 15). The Court granted her motions and requested that Clara P. file a supplemental brief in support of her case, (Filing No. 16). Clara P. filed a supplemental brief. (Filing No. 17). The Commissioner filed a brief in support of the Commissioner's decision and requested that the Court dismiss the case pursuant to the doctrine of res judicata based on an earlier district court decision.[2] (Filing No. 19.)

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. Previous District Court Litigation

         On April 15, 2015, case number 1:15-cv-581, Clara P. filed a complaint challenging the final decision of the Commissioner, an Appeals Council decision that upheld the SSA's determination that an overpayment had occurred with Clara P.'s social security benefits. (Filing No. 19-3 at 2.) Magistrate Judge Tim Baker (the “Magistrate Judge”) issued a Report and Recommendation recommending that Clara P.'s motion to remand be denied upon a finding that the Appeals Council's decision was supported by substantial evidence. (Filing No. 19-3 at 10.) The Magistrate Judge laid out the operative facts and legal provisions that went into the determination that an overpayment had occurred, including the underlying calculation of the proper amount of benefits. Those facts included the following statements: Clara P. receives a monthly pension from work she performed for a government employer who chose to not participate in social security. (Filing No. 19-3 at 2.) She also elected to receive social security retirement benefits based on her earnings from a non-government employer. (Filing No. 19-3 at 2.) She further elected to receive widow's benefits[3] from the SSA based on her late husband's earnings record. (Filing No. 19-3 at 2). By application of the Windfall Elimination Provision (“WEP”), the SSA reduces social security retirement benefits paid to a government pension recipient. (Filing No. 19-3 at 5 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.212 and 404.213).) According to the dual entitlement rule[4], the SSA also reduces the monthly amount of widow's benefits by the monthly amount of retirement benefits. (Filing No. 19-3 at 5 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.407(a)). Additionally, according to the Government Pension Offset (“GPO”), the SSA reduces widow's benefits paid to a government pension recipient if the government employer did not participate in social security. (Filing No. 19-3 at 5 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.408a(a)(1)(ii), 404.408(d)(1), and 404.408(d)(3)).)

         The Magistrate Judge noted that the Appeals Council's decision had found that the WEP, GPO, and dual entitlement reductions all applied to Clara P.'s benefits. (Filing No. 19-3 at 5-6.) The Magistrate Judge found that substantial evidence supported the Appeals Council's decision, noting that Clara P. agreed with the underlying facts, but asserted that she was entitled to the amount of her retirement benefits reduced by the WEP plus the amount of her widow's benefits reduced by the GPO. (Filing No. 19-3 at 7 (The Court notes that Clara P.'s contention effectively ignored application of the dual entitlement rule.).)

         Clara P. objected to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation. (Filing No. 9-2 at 48.) However, District Judge Sarah Evans Barker adopted the Report and Recommendation, overruled Clara P.'s objections, and denied her request for remand on July 20, 2016. (Filing No. 9-2 at 58.) Judge Barker found that the Appeals Council's calculation of Clara P.'s benefits was supported by substantial evidence. (Filing No. 9-2 at 58.) Clara P. did not appeal the district court decision.

         B. ALJ's Decision

         In the ALJ's June 11, 2018 decision that is the subject of this Complaint, the ALJ accurately described the procedural posture leading up to Clara P.'s latest hearing:

The claimant's retirement benefit and widower's benefit are subject to the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and Government Pension Offset (GPO) based on her years of working in a federal government position with non-covered earnings and subsequently receiving a Civil Service Retirement System pension (CSRS). The claimant's benefit amounts and applicable offset were previously discussed in a prior hearing decision dated June 13, 2013, followed by an Appeals Council decision dated February 12, 2015, and a District Court decision dated July 20, 2016 (Ex. B11; B23; B27).
Following the District Court's decision, the claimant contacted her local Social Security field office regarding the basis for her outstanding overpayment related to WEP and GPO. She also requested reconsideration of WEP and GPO pertaining to her retirement benefit and her widower's benefit (Ex. B29). On August 11, 2016, the Social Security Administration sent a Notice of Reconsideration to the claimant confirming their prior determination (Ex. B28; B29). The notice provided further discussion of WEP and GPO offsets and included a detailed summary of the claimant's benefit ...

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