Pierce v. Commissioner of Social Sec., Civil No. 07-3154 (JBS).

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
Citation651 F.Supp.2d 211
Docket NumberCivil No. 07-3154 (JBS).
PartiesLois B. PIERCE, Plaintiff, v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
Decision Date20 August 2009
651 F.Supp.2d 211
Lois B. PIERCE, Plaintiff,
Civil No. 07-3154 (JBS).
United States District Court, D. New Jersey.
August 20, 2009.

Page 212

Ms. Lois B. Pierce, Lawnside, NJ, pro se.

Sheena V. Barr, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney, Social Security Administration, Office of General Counsel, New York, NY, for Defendant.


SIMANDLE, District Judge.


Plaintiff Lois B. Pierce, proceeding pro se, filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"), which found that Plaintiff was not entitled to spousal insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. (the "Act"), because Plaintiff receives a disability retirement pension that offsets the amount of the monthly Social Security benefit she could receive. The Commissioner determined that under 20 C.F.R. § 404.408a(a), Plaintiff's spousal insurance benefits were subject to a reduction based upon the fact that Plaintiff was receiving a disability retirement pension under the Civil Service Retirement System and that Plaintiff did not qualify for an exception to the pension offset provision. Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner erred in finding that she did not qualify for an exception to the Act's pension offset provision. For the reasons that follow, the Court will affirm the decision of the Commissioner.


A. Facts

The facts relevant to the disposition of Plaintiff's claim for spousal benefits are as follows. Beginning in 1961, Plaintiff worked for the United States Social Security Administration ("SSA"), where she ultimately rose to the level of Operations Supervisor. (R. at 85-86, 97.) On September 20, 1982, "[d]ue to the stress of the job and other pressures," Plaintiff assumed a leave without pay ("LWOP") status in order to take an extended leave of absence from her job and "seek help for [her]self as well as for [her] husband thr[ough] a `healing center' in Oklahoma." (Id. at 56, 60.) Approximately eight months later, in May 1983, Plaintiff was informed by Ulrich R. Hester, District Manager for the SSA office in Philadelphia, that she would be required to "take whatever action was necessary to resolve [her] problems, e.g., return to duty or file for retirement." (Id. at 60.)

Plaintiff elected to pursue the latter of these options, and filed an application for disability retirement benefits pursuant to the Civil Service Retirement System

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("CSRS") on May 11, 1983. (Id. at 40.) Under the terms of the CSRS, "before an employee is eligible for disability retirement benefits," he or she must provide the United States Office of Personnel Management ("OPM") with "document[ation]" of, inter alia, a deficiency in his or her service at work, a "medical condition that is defined as a health impairment resulting from disease or injury, including psychiatric disease," and a "relationship between the service deficiency and the medical condition such that the medical condition has caused the service deficiency."1 (Id. at 32.) The OPM reviewed Plaintiff's application for disability retirement benefits, and, on July 29, 2003, "disallowed" her application on account of the insufficiency of the medical evidence Plaintiff had provided. (Id. at 40.) In January 1984, Plaintiff sought reconsideration of her application for disability retirement benefits, and submitted "additional medical evidence" in support thereof. (Id.) The OPM approved of her second application on April 4, 1984, finding that she had become eligible for retirement due to disability on January 4, 1984.2 (Id.)

Nineteen years later, on April 30, 2003, Plaintiff filed an application for spousal insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act.3 (Id. at 13-15.) Initially, Plaintiff was awarded spousal benefits, which commenced in April 2003. (Id. at 10.) However, on January 26, 2005, the SSA wrote to Plaintiff, informing her that she was not entitled to spousal benefits and that the SSA had overpaid her by providing such benefits between April 2003 and December 2004:

We must reduce Social Security benefits paid to wives if they also receive a Federal, State, or local government pension based on their own work. We reduce benefits by two-thirds the amount of the pension. If the two-thirds amount is equal to or more than the Social Security monthly benefit, then we do not pay benefits . . . .

We paid you $13,093.30 for April 2003 through December 2004. Since we should have paid you $0.00 for April 2003 through December 2004, we paid you $13,093.30 more than you were due.

(Id. at 16.) The January 26, 2005 letter informed Plaintiff of her right to appeal the decision and outlined Plaintiff's options for repaying the overpaid funds.4 (Id. at 17-18.)

Plaintiff sought reconsideration of the determination that she was not entitled to spousal benefits and had been overpaid. (Id. at 20.) The SSA upheld the initial determination, explaining:

Section 202(b)(4) of the Social Security Act provides that the amount of a person's benefit payable as a spouse will be reduced due to receipt of a government

Page 214

pension which is based on the person's own work for the Federal or State government . . . . This provision does not apply to anyone who is both eligible for the government pension before December 1982 and meets all of the requirements for entitlement to spouse's benefits as they existed in January 1977. In addition, this provision does not apply to anyone who was both eligible for a government pension before July 1983, and who received one-half support from the worker.

In the file is a letter from the . . . OPM . . . which states that Ms. Pierce was first eligible to retire on January 4, 1984. Therefore, Ms. Pierce's benefits are subject to offset.

(Id. at 24-25.) That is, the SSA determined that Plaintiff did not qualify for an exception to the pension offset requirement of the Social Security Act because she had not been eligible to receive a pension before July 1983.

Plaintiff next filed a request for a hearing on the issue of her entitlement to spousal benefits on August 24, 2005. (Id. at 10.) The matter was assigned to Administrative Law Judge Daniel N. Shellhamer (the "ALJ"), who convened a hearing on March 8, 2006 at which he heard Plaintiff's testimony and received documents into evidence. (Id.) In a decision issued June 5, 2006, the ALJ held that Plaintiff's "spousal benefits, under Title II of the Social Security Act, . . . [had been properly] offset due to her receipt of a non-covered federal pension." (Id.) In the decision, the ALJ explained that under section 402(k)(5)(A) of the Social Security Act,5 spousal insurance benefits are reduced when the party seeking such benefits receives a government pension based upon his or her own work for the federal or state government if that work was not covered by Social Security on the last date of employment. (Id. at 11.)

The ALJ recognized that "this [pension offset] provision does not apply to anyone who was both eligible for a government pension before July 1983, and who received one[-]half support from the worker . . ." (Id.) The ALJ rejected Plaintiff's argument that she qualified for this exception:

Although Ms. Pierce contends that she was eligible for her pension prior to July 1983, the documentary evidence clearly establishes that Ms. Pierce did not become eligible until January 4, 1984 . . . In fact, it is accurate that Ms. Pierce filed an application for a disability pension in May 1983. However, that claim was denied . . . Upon reconsideration, and the submission of additional medical documentation, Ms. Pierce was found eligible for the disability pension commencing April 4, 1984, but not prior thereto . . . . The specific date when ALL factors of eligibility were met, in the instant case, was April 4, 1984.

(Id.) Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council of the SSA, which rejected Plaintiff's claim in a May 1, 2007 decision, explaining:

In requesting review, you essentially repeated your prior contentions, which were addressed by the Social Security Administration and the Administrative Law Judge. The Appeals Council does not find them persuasive.

(Id. at 4.)

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed her Complaint [Docket Item 1] with this Court on July 9, 2007,

Page 215

seeking review of the decision denying her spousal insurance benefits. On May 8, 2009, more than three months after the deadline for Plaintiff to file a brief in support of her claims expired, see L. Civ. R. 9.1(a)(3), the Court entered an Order "afford[ing] Plaintiff one final opportunity to file a brief in support of her appeal," and requiring that Plaintiff "file her brief within twenty (20) days of the entry of this Order." (Docket Item 8 at 1.) The parties thereafter filed briefs addressing the Commissioner's determination that Plaintiff was not entitled to spousal insurance benefits, to the merits of which the Court now turns.


A. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Congress provided for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny a complainant's application for Social Security benefits. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir.1995). A reviewing court must uphold the Commissioner's factual decisions where they are supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir.2001); Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir.2000); Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992). Substantial evidence means more than "a mere scintilla." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (citation omitted). It means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. The inquiry is not whether the reviewing court...

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