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Freeman v. Astrue

United States District Court, D. Delaware

June 16, 2015

DUANE ERIK FREEMAN, SR., Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

GREGORY M. SLEET, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

The plaintiff Duane Erik Freeman, Sr. ("Freeman"). brought this action under 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g), seeking review of a final decision by the defendant Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), [1] denying Freeman's request for a waiver of overpayment recovery. (D.I. 7 at 17-18.) Freeman applied for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") on February 15, 1993. ( Id. at 14.) The Social Security Administration. ("SSA") granted his application on February 8, 1995, at which point he began receiving and cashing monthly DIB checks. ( Id. ) In March 2002, Freeman resumed full-time employment and notified SSA as much. ( Id. at 14, 148.) Despite his resumed work activity, Freeman continued to receive and cash DIB checks. ( Id. ) On December 18, 2006, SSA informed Freeman that, due to his resumed work activity and earnings, he had been overpaid and was obligated to refund the overpayment. ( Id. at 161-64.) Freeman requested a waiver of overpayment recovery, asserting that he was not at fault for the mistake and could not afford to repay SSA. ( Id. at 75-82.) SSA denied the request. ( Id. at 87.)

On March 11, 2010, the matter was heard before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). ( Id. at 95, 165-94). In a decision dated April 12, 2010, ALJ Judith Showalter denied Freeman's requested waiver of overpayment recovery. ( Id. at 11-18). On February 10, 2011, the Social Security Appeals Council also denied Freeman's request to have the matter reviewed. ( Id. at 4-8). Freeman then filed this action on April 11, 2011. (D.I. 2, 3.) Presently before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (D.I. 13, 14.) For the reasons that follow, the court will: (1) deny Freeman's motion for summary judgment, and (2) grant the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment.

II. BACKGROUND

Freeman began working as a city carrier for the United States Postal Service ("USPS") in 1990. (D.I. 7 at 145, 148.) During his first year of employment, Freeman suffered a disability that rendered him unable to work full-time. ( Id. at 14.) In the wake of his disability, he received worker's compensation benefits. ( Id. ) On February 15, 1993, Freeman protectively filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of October 18, 1990. ( Id. ) SSA approved Freeman's application on February 8, 1995, finding that he was indeed disabled as of his alleged onset date and eligible for DIB payments as of February 1992. ( Id. ) SSA sent Freeman a notice of award letter dated March 14, 1995, which included a pamphlet entitled "When You Get Social Security Disability Benefits.... What You Need To Know." ( Id. at 17.) The pamphlet explained SSA's reporting requirements in the event of resumption of work or improved health. ( Id. ) Shortly thereafter, Freeman received a lump-sum payment for retroactive benefits. ( Id. at 14.) He also began receiving monthly DIB checks moving forward. ( Id. )

SSA subsequently notified Freeman that his initial lump-sum payment was too high, due to his having received worker's compensation benefits. ( Id. ) An ALJ decision on February 2, 2000, however, determined that Freeman was not at fault and waived the overpayment recovery. ( Id. at 14, 20, 76.) Freeman continued to receive and cash monthly benefit. ( Id. at 14).

In March 2002, Freeman resumed full-time employment as a city carrier for USPS, earning a wage of $21.00 per hour. ( Id. at 147-156.) He reported earnings of $1865.27 in March 2002 and $1521.96 in April 2002. ( Id. at 149.) Freeman promptly reported his changed work status to SSA in March and April 2002, first by telephone and then by completing and returning a Work Activity Report. (D.I. 13, Ex. 1 at 1-8.) SSA acknowledged Freeman's return to work in a subsequent notice dated February 5, 2003, which included a pamphlet entitled "Working While Disabled... How Social Security Can Help, " and a request that he complete additional Work Activity Reports. (D.I. 13, Ex. 2 at 1.) Although SSA acknowledged his resumption of work, Freeman continued to receive monthly DIB for a period of more than four years after March 2002. (D.I. 7 at 14, 137-45.) According to SSA claims representative Rebecca Calloway, the mistaken payments were likely the result of a clerical error in recording Freeman's Work Activity Reports. ( Id. at 192.)

Throughout this period from 2002 to 2006, Freeman repeatedly notified SSA of his renewed employment. ( Id. at 115-36, 147-156.) Specifically, Freeman submitted Work Activity Reports in April 2002, February 2003, November 2005, and November 2006. ( Id. ) These Work Activity Reports indicated that, from March 2003 to December 2005, Freeman earned a minimum of $3395.65 per month and had no special needs pertaining to his employment performance. ( Id. at 115-20.) On several occasions, due to increases in Freeman's monthly earnings, SSA increased Freeman's DIB award amount and sent him Notices of Change in Benefits letters. ( Id. at 137-44.) Freeman continued to receive and cash DIB checks. ( Id. at 176-77.)

On December 18, 2006, SSA sent a letter to Freeman informing him that, from March 2003 through November 2006, he had been overpaid disability benefits after resuming full-time employment. ( Id. at 14, 161-64.) The letter explained that Freeman had mistakenly continued to receive benefits and had thus been paid an excess of $70, 499.00. ( Id. ) On January 16, 2007, Freeman requested a waiver of overpayment recovery, arguing that the overpayment was not his fault and that he could not afford to repay the money. ( Id. at 19-26.) He also submitted documentation indicating his household expenses. ( Id. at 27-51.) On March 5, 2007, SSA acknowledged receipt of Freeman's waiver request and asked for additional documentation of Freeman's household expenses. ( Id. at 52.) Freeman submitted additional documentation. ( Id. at 53-72.) In June 2007, SSA determined that Freeman had sufficient monthly household income- which, including his wife's income, exceeded $5000-to refund the overpayment. ( Id. at 14, 73-74.)

In March 2008, Freeman submitted a second request for a waiver of overpayment recovery, again maintaining that SSA's overpayment was not his fault, that he was financially unable to pay the money, and that it was unfair. ( Id. at 75-82.) After receiving the request, SSA determined that Freeman could afford to repay $216 per month. ( Id. at 84-85.) SSA then sent Freeman a letter informing him that his waiver request was not approved and scheduling a personal conference to determine whether he would be compelled to refund the overpayment. ( Id. at 87.)

Freeman met with an SSA claims representative on December 18, 2008. ( Id. at 88.) He reiterated his contention that he was not at fault for the overpayment because he had promptly and continuously informed SSA of his resumed work activity. ( Id. ) The claims representative advised Freeman that he should have returned the checks. ( Id. ) Freeman advised the claims representative that he wanted a hearing before an ALJ and did not wish to make payment arrangements at that time. ( Id. ) Upon conclusion of the personal conference, the claims representative completed a Waiver Determination form indicating that Freeman was at fault for the overpayment and that Freeman had sufficient means to pay back the benefits. ( Id. at 90-91.) SSA then sent a notification to Freeman officially denying his request for a waiver. ( Id. at 92-94.)

On February 3, 2009, Freeman sent SSA a timely request for a hearing before an ALJ. ( Id. at 95.) SSA acknowledged receipt of the request in a letter dated August 4, 2009, and advised Freeman of his right to representation. ( Id. at 96-102.) SSA scheduled the hearing for March 11, 2010, and again advised Freeman of his right to representation. ( Id. at 106-12.)

A video hearing before ALJ Showalter was held on March 11, 2010, as scheduled. ( Id. at 14, 165-94.) At the outset of the hearing, Freeman was again reminded of his right to legal representation. ...


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