Nnakwe v. Commissioner of Social Security

Filing 26

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER granting 16 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings; denying 20 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings (Docket Entry 20) is DENIED and the Commissioner's motion (Docket Entry 16) is GRANTED. The Clerk of the Court is respectfully directed to mail Plaintiff a copy of this Order and mark this case CLOSED. So Ordered by Judge Joanna Seybert on 7/26/2012. C/M; C/ECF (Valle, Christine)

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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT EASTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK --------------------------------------X WINIFRED NNAKWE, Plaintiff, -against- MEMORANDUM & ORDER 11-CV-2415(JS) MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant. --------------------------------------X APPEARANCES For Plaintiff: Winifred Nnakwe, pro se 190 Acorn Avenue Central Islip, NY 11722 For Defendant: Robert W. Schumacher, II, Esq. U.S. Attorney's Office Eastern District of New York 610 Federal Plaza Central Islip, NY 11722 SEYBERT, District Judge: Pro se Plaintiff Winifred Nnakwe (“Plaintiff”) appeals the decision of “Commissioner”) overpayment of the denying Commissioner her disability of Social application benefits. Security for a Plaintiff (the waiver of and the Commissioner cross-moved for judgment on the pleadings (Docket Entries 16, 20); for the following reasons, Plaintiff’s motion is DENIED and the Commissioner’s motion is GRANTED. BACKGROUND Plaintiff, a school teacher, applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) in August 2005, alleging a disability arising out of her serious kidney disease. __”) 12.) DIB in Her application was granted, and she began receiving December 2005. returned to work. not (See Admin. R. (“R. timely In the meantime, however, Plaintiff According to the Commissioner, Plaintiff did notify him that she was working (R. 81), in contravention of Plaintiff’s award letter, which required her to alert Social Security if she returned to the job (Docket Entry 20 at 133). Plaintiff accepted DIB payments from December 2005 to November 2006 (R. 81), an overpayment of $12,628. The Commissioner sought repayment of the DIB, and Plaintiff applied for a waiver, arguing that she timely notified Social Security of her return to work and that she was told by a Social Security employee that she was eligible for a trial work period (during which she could work and receive benefits). R. 70-71, application decision. 81.) The (R. 81), Commissioner and denied Plaintiff Plaintiff’s sought review (See waiver of this A hearing was held on August 5, 2009 (where Plaintiff appeared pro se) and, in a subsequent written decision, the Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) found that (1) Plaintiff was not without fault in accepting the overpayment, and (2) it would not be against equity and good conscience for Plaintiff to return the money. ALJ’s findings, (R. 14, 346.) making the The Appeals Council upheld the denial Commissioner’s final decision. 2 of Plaintiff’s waiver the DISCUSSION The Commissioner’s decision must be affirmed. I. Legal Standard In reviewing the ruling of the ALJ, this Court will not determine de novo whether Plaintiff is in fact disabled. Thus, even if the Court may have reached a different decision, it must not substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ. See Jones v. Sullivan, 949 F.2d 57, 59 (2d Cir. 1991). this Court must determine whether the ALJ’s Instead, findings are supported by “substantial evidence in the record as a whole or are based on an erroneous legal standard.” Curry v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 117, 122 (2d Cir. 2000) superseded by statute on other grounds, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560 (quoting Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998)). evidence exists decision will exists. See to be If the Court finds that substantial support upheld, Johnson v. the even Commissioner’s if Barnhart, evidence 269 decision, to F. the Supp. 2d the contrary 82, 84 (E.D.N.Y. 2003). “Substantial evidence is such evidence that a reasonable might mind conclusion.” Id. accept as adequate to support a The substantial evidence test applies not only to the ALJ’s findings of fact, but also to any inferences and conclusions of law drawn from such facts. See id. To determine if substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ’s findings, this Court must “examine the entire record, 3 including conflicting evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences may be drawn when deciding whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence.” See Gonzalez v. Barnhart, No. 01-CV-7449, 2003 WL 21204448, at *2 (E.D.N.Y. May 21, 2003) (quoting Brown v. Apfel, 174 F.3d 59, 62 (2d Cir. 1999)). “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Where an ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence, however, or where the Court is “‘unable to fathom the ALJ's rationale in relation to the evidence in the record without further findings or clearer explanation appropriate.” for the decision,’ remand is Hernandez v. Astrue, 814 F. Supp. 2d 168, 184 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (quoting Pratts v. Chater, 94 F.3d 34, 39 (2d Cir. 1996)). II. Substantial Evidence Supports the Commissioner’s Decision The Commissioner may not recover overpayments of social security benefits where the claimant is without fault in accepting the overpayments and the recovery would either (i) defeat the purpose of the Social Security Act, or (ii) against equity and good conscience to require repayment. U.S.C. § 404(b). be 42 Whether a claimant is “without fault” may turn on whether she failed “to furnish information which he knew or should have known to be material,” 20 C.F.R. § 404.507(b), or 4 accepted a payment “which [s]he either knew or could have been expected to Whether repayment Security person know Act of expenses.” was would depends income incorrect,” on required defeat the whether for 20 C.F.R. purpose repayment ordinary 20 C.F.R. § 404.508(a). and § of would 404.507(c). the Social “deprive necessary a living In turn, this determination “depends upon whether the person has an income or financial resources needs,” sufficient taking into for more account than ordinary expenses rent, utilities, and insurance. Id. that and necessary include clothing, Whether repayment would be against equity and good conscience turns on whether a claimant changed her position for the worse or “relinquished a valuable right” in reliance on the benefits that were overpaid in error. 20 C.F.R. § 404.509(a)(1). Here, the ALJ determined both that Plaintiff was not without fault in accepting the overpaid DIB and that repayment would not defeat the purpose of the Act. On the latter point, the ALJ used the phrase “against equity and good conscience,” but it is clear from the context of his ruling that he also considered whether repayment would defeat the purposes of the Act. As part of his decision, the ALJ detailed Plaintiff’s salary and expenses (R. 12-13), factors that bear on the “defeat the purpose” prong of the waiver inquiry, not the “equity and good conscience” prong, see 20 5 C.F.R. § 404.509(b) (“The individual's finding of financial against circumstances equity and good are not material conscience.”). to a Neither decision was an abuse of the ALJ’s discretion. As to the fault inquiry, Plaintiff maintains that she timely notified Social returned to work. Security administrators (R. 358; Pl. Br. 5.) that she had Beyond Plaintiff’s hearing testimony, though, there is no evidence to support this view. In her brief, Plaintiff application was denied on states October 6, that 2005 her disability because she had returned to work and that this supports her position that she notified Social Security of her receiving DIB in December 2005. employment before (Pl. Br. 5.) she began Plaintiff does not cite any evidence to show that she was denied benefits on October 6, 2005. This confusion may stem from language in the Commissioner’s waiver decision stating that “Due to this return to work, claimants [sic] disability claim was reversed to a denial 10/06.” (R. 81.) Plaintiff describes similar language in her brief to argue that the reversal occurred on October 6, 2005 (Pl. Br. 5), but it is clear that “10/06” in the waiver decision means “October 2006,” not “October 6th.” Plaintiff’s own documents show that she informed Social Security of her return to work on July 10, 2006. (Docket Entry 20 at 143.) The ALJ also properly determined that Plaintiff, whose salary in 2007 was $86,688 (R. 39, 353), could afford to repay 6 the DIB at a rate of $125 per month. waiver careful application note of and her Plaintiff’s hearing salary Drawing from Plaintiff’s testimony, and decision was not an abuse of discretion. the expenses, ALJ and took his See Valente, 733 F.2d at 1041 (“[T]he issues of whether repayment would defeat the purposes of the Act or be against equity or good conscience implicate an exercise of informed judgment, and the Secretary has considerable discretion in making these determinations.”).1 In sum, the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence and will not be overturned. 1 In her reply brief, Plaintiff hints that she bought a new car in reliance on her benefits (see Pl. Reply 2), a point that, under other circumstances, might go toward whether repayment would be against equity or good conscience. Plaintiff did not argue this in front of the Commissioner, though, and she provides no details on when or why she bought the car, how much it cost, or (other than her conclusory statement) why it was purchased in “due to” her DIB. (Id.) 7 CONCLUSION For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings (Docket Entry 20) is DENIED and the Commissioner’s motion (Docket Entry 16) is GRANTED. The Clerk of the Court is respectfully directed to mail Plaintiff a copy of this Order and mark this case CLOSED. SO ORDERED. /s/ JOANNA SEYBERT______ Joanna Seybert, U.S.D.J. Dated: July 26 , 2012 Central Islip, New York 8

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