Nnakwe v. Commissioner of Social Security
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)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
MEMORANDUM & ORDER
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of
Winifred Nnakwe, pro se
190 Acorn Avenue
Central Islip, NY 11722
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
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.
Plaintiff, a school teacher, applied for disability
insurance benefits (“DIB”) in August 2005, alleging a disability
arising out of her serious kidney disease.
Her application was granted, and she began receiving
returned to work.
(See Admin. R. (“R.
According to the Commissioner, Plaintiff did
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.
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).
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.
(R. 14, 346.)
The Appeals Council upheld the
Commissioner’s final decision.
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).
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)).
If the Court finds that substantial
“Substantial evidence is such evidence that 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.
To determine if substantial evidence exists to support
the ALJ’s findings, this Court must “examine the entire record,
conflicting inferences may be drawn when deciding whether the
findings are supported by substantial evidence.”
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.
“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as
to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be
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
Hernandez v. Astrue, 814 F. Supp. 2d 168, 184
(E.D.N.Y. 2011) (quoting Pratts v. Chater, 94 F.3d 34, 39 (2d
II. Substantial Evidence Supports the Commissioner’s Decision
social security benefits where the claimant is without fault in
accepting the overpayments and the recovery would either (i)
against equity and good conscience to require repayment.
U.S.C. § 404(b).
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
accepted a payment “which [s]he either knew or could have been
20 C.F.R. § 404.508(a).
In turn, this determination
“depends upon whether the person has an income or financial
rent, utilities, and insurance.
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
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
decision was an abuse of the ALJ’s discretion.
As to the fault inquiry, Plaintiff maintains that she
returned to work.
(R. 358; Pl. Br. 5.)
hearing testimony, though, there is no evidence to support this
returned to work and that this supports her position that she
receiving DIB in December 2005.
(Pl. Br. 5.)
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
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.”
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
the DIB at a rate of $125 per month.
Drawing from Plaintiff’s
decision was not an abuse of discretion.
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.
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.)
judgment on the pleadings (Docket Entry 20) is DENIED and the
Commissioner’s motion (Docket Entry 16) is GRANTED.
of the Court is respectfully directed to mail Plaintiff a copy
of this Order and mark this case CLOSED.
/s/ JOANNA SEYBERT______
Joanna Seybert, U.S.D.J.
26 , 2012
Central Islip, New York
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