994 F.2d 1170 (5th Cir. 1993), 92-1515, Austin v. Shalala

Docket Nº:92-1515.
Citation:994 F.2d 1170
Party Name:Mildred AUSTIN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Donna SHALALA, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:July 13, 1993
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

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994 F.2d 1170 (5th Cir. 1993)

Mildred AUSTIN, Plaintiff-Appellant,


Donna SHALALA, Secretary of Health and Human Services,


No. 92-1515.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

July 13, 1993

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Robert Edward Barfield, Amarillo, TX, for plaintiff-appellant.

Joanna Tate, Joseph B. Liken, Sr. Supervisory Lead Atty., Dept. of Health and Human Services, Office of Gen. Counsel, Marvin Collins, U.S. Atty., Rebecca A. Gregory, Asst.

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U.S. Atty., Dallas, TX, for defendant-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

Before SMITH, DUHE, and WIENER, Circuit Judges.

JERRY E. SMITH, Circuit Judge:



Mildred Austin's husband died on October 6, 1968. On August 3, 1977, she married Sam Chancler, but kept the Austin name. When Austin turned sixty on June 6, 1980, she had separated from Chancler and moved to Tyler, Texas. At that time, she apparently intended to obtain a divorce from Chancler.

Austin applied for widow's benefits on September 5, 1980, at the Tyler social security office. 1 She told the claims officer that she had remarried but was separated and intended to seek a divorce. Austin testified that the claims officer filled out the application form and then had her sign it. Austin's form states that she was not married. Although she acknowledges that she signed the form, she maintains that she never read it and that the claims officer did not tell her she could lose her benefits if she remained married. 2 Five months later, Austin reconciled with Chancler and never divorced.

At age sixty-two, Austin applied for survivor's benefits at the Amarillo social security office. The claims officer advised her that survivor's benefits would be about the same as the widow's benefits and it would not be worth the trouble to make the change. When Austin reached age sixty-five, she applied for retirement benefits on her own account. At this point, the Social Security Administration ("SSA") discovered that she had been married and sent her a letter on July 21, 1987, that demanded repayment of $27,489. The SSA later reduced this demand to $25,124.80.


Austin requested a waiver of recovery, and the SSA denied that request on August 23, 1988. Austin then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). At the hearing on July 20, 1989, Austin was represented by counsel, presented her testimony, and asked for a waiver. The ALJ concluded that Austin had failed to provide material information to the SSA and had received payments that she knew or should have known to be incorrect. On October 2, 1989, the ALJ issued a decision holding that Austin was "not without fault" in creating the overpayment. The appeals council denied her request for review.

Austin filed a timely complaint in the district court on March 26, 1990. Both parties moved for summary judgment, and Austin moved for a jury trial. On March 27, 1992, the magistrate judge recommended that the Secretary's motion for summary judgment be granted and the request for jury trial be denied. Over Austin's objections, the district court adopted the magistrate judge's findings and entered judgment in favor of the Secretary.


Austin claims she was entitled to a waiver of repayment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 404(b), which provides in part that

... there shall be no adjustment of payments to, or recovery from, any person who is without fault if such adjustment or recovery would defeat the purpose of this subchapter or would be against equity and good conscience.

The social security regulations define when a claimant must be found to be "without fault" as follows:

... Where an individual accepts such overpayment because of reliance on erroneous

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information from an official source within the [SSA] ... such individual, in accepting such overpayment, will be deemed to be "without fault."

20 C.F.R. § 404.510a (1992). In determining fault, the Secretary will consider other relevant factors such as the claimant's age, intelligence, education, and physical and mental condition." 20 C.F.R. § 404.507 (1992).

Our review of a final decision of the Secretary under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is limited to determining whether it is supported by substantial evidence and whether there were any errors of law made in the evaluation of the evidence. Bray v. Bowen, 854 F.2d 685, 686-87 (5th Cir.1988). Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support the decision. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971).

Austin asserts that she relied upon erroneous information provided by the claims officer and that she relied solely upon the interviewer to complete her application. The first argument has no merit. Austin maintains that the erroneous statement regarding her marital status was provided by the claims officer because he filled out the form. Austin signed the form, which stated that she was unmarried when she was in fact married.

The ALJ reasonably could conclude from the record that Austin led the claims officer to believe that she would be unmarried in the near future. Even under these circumstances, we can find no authority for classifying Austin as unmarried; the claims officer apparently erred. We find no authority for the proposition that an error by a claims officer means that the claims officer has supplied erroneous information. Here, the claims officer did not supply Austin with any information at all; he merely filled out her claim form. Moreover, Austin asserts that she did not read the form, so she could not possibly have relied upon the error. The ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. 3

Regarding Austin's second contention, the ALJ found that Austin was "not without fault," because she was negligent in not catching the mistake on the form. Austin testified that she did not read the form, thus supporting this finding with substantial evidence. In her reply brief, Austin argues that negligence should not necessarily equate with a finding of "not without fault." This court has not previously addressed that issue.

We conclude that when a claimant fails to read a benefits form and verify that the information thereon is correct, the claimant who signs the form may be held to be "at fault" if the information turns out to be incorrect. See Chapman v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 151, 152-53 (8th Cir.1986) (per curiam). If the rule were otherwise, claimants could lie about the information and later claim they did not know that the form was incorrect. Under the circumstances of this case, we find nothing offensive about holding a claimant bound by the content of documents she has signed. 4


Austin also argues that she was entitled to a jury trial. The question of whether a social security recipient is entitled to a jury trial when the Secretary seeks to recoup an overpayment of benefits is res nova.

Austin characterizes the present action as a common law proceeding on a debt, brought by the Secretary against her for repayment of her past benefits. The Secretary responds that such an argument is "inconsistent with the limitations upon judicial review of Social Security proceedings set out in the Social Security Act." Section 405(g) constitutes the sole and exclusive method for obtaining judicial review of an administrative decision in a social security case. See Mathews

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v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 327, 96 S.Ct. 893, 899, 47 L.Ed.2d 18 (1976) (noting that an appeal under section 405(g) constitutes the sole method of judicial review for a denial of benefits). The express terms of the statute apply to any final decision of the Secretary, not just to a denial of benefits.

We find the Secretary's reasoning irrelevant to the issue before us. As we interpret the Secretary's argument, Austin is not entitled to a jury trial because the Social Security Act does not provide for one. The right to trial by jury, however, is a right delineated in the Seventh Amendment. If the Seventh Amendment requires a jury trial in this instance, the statute would be unconstitutional as applied to this type of action. In other words, the provisions of the statute have no bearing on the question of whether a jury trial is constitutionally required.

The traditional rule regarding jury trials in suits involving the United States is that there is no constitutional right to trial by jury in a suit against the United States. 9 CHARLES A. WRIGHT & ARTHUR R. MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE § 2314, at 68 (1971). "It is reasoned that the authorization given by Congress to the courts to entertain these actions is not a grant of jurisdiction under Article III of the Constitution but a method adopted by Congress under Article I to pay the debts of the United States. The Seventh Amendment is not applicable because it applies only to 'suits at common law' and it is said that at common law there was no right of action against a sovereign enforceable by jury trial or otherwise." Id. (citing United States v. Sherwood, 312 U.S. 584, 587, 61 S.Ct. 767, 770, 85 L.Ed. 1058 (1941); McElrath v. United States, 102 U.S. 426, 440, 26 L.Ed. 189 (1880); Galloway v. United States, 319 U.S. 372, 388, 63 S.Ct. 1077, 1086, 87 L.Ed. 1458 (1943)). A jury trial in a suit against the United States is required only if a statute expressly or by fair implication provides for one.

On the other hand, where the United States brings the action, the right to trial by jury is determined in the same manner as if the suit were between private parties. 9 WRIGHT & MILLER, supra, § 2314, at 70; see Tull v. United States, 481 U.S. 412, 418-19, 107 S.Ct. 1831, 1836, 95 L.Ed.2d 365 (1987); Damsky v. Zavatt, 289 F.2d 46, 51 (2d Cir.1961); Vandevander v. United States, 172 F.2d 100, 101 (5th Cir.1949). In those instances, the usual rule...

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