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Stevens v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Delaware

January 12, 2017

ERWIN D. STEVENS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Erwin D. Stevens, Wilmington, Delaware. Pro Se Plaintiff.

          Charles M. Oberly, III, Esquire, United States Attorney for the District of Delaware and Heather Benderson, Esquire, Special Assistant United States Attorney of the Social Security Administration, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Counsel for Defendant. Of Counsel: Nora Koch, Esquire, Acting Regional Chief Counsel, Region III, of the Social Security Administration, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROBINSON Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Erwin D. Stevens ("plaintiff'), who proceeds pro se and has been granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis, seeks judicial review of a decision of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Presently before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff seeks review of a final decision by defendant denying his request for waiver of overpayment recovery. (D.1. 2) Plaintiff began receiving disability insurance benefits upon a finding of disability as of June 25, 1999. (D.I. 16 at 14, D.I. 16-2 at 39) Plaintiff returned to work in October 2005. (D.I. 16-2 at 26) On June 2, 2008, plaintiff was advised by SSA that he had received an overpayment of benefits in the amount of $26, 930. (D.I. 16-1 at 46-51) On May 14, 2010, he received a second notice of overpayment and, on September 13, 2010, he submitted a request for waiver of the overpayment. (D.I. 16-2 at 5-13) On September 24, 2011, the SSA denied plaintiff's requests[1] to waive collection of overpayment (that had increased to $39, 051.60). (D.I. 16-2 at 14-15, 18-20, D.I. 16-3 at 10-14) Plaintiff sought a hearing before the administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which hearing was held on June 18, 2013. (D.I. 16-2 at 30, D.I. 16-3 at 32) On July 26, 2013, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying the request for waiver of overpayment. (D.I. 16 at 17-20) Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council, which issued a decision on August 12, 2014 agreeing with the ALJ's determination. (Id. at D.I. 16 at 9-13; D.I. 16-4 at 17-20) Plaintiff commenced this action on October 9, 2014.

         B. Benefits History

         When plaintiff applied for disability benefits on October 26, 1999, he agreed to "notify the Social Security Administrative of all events as explained to me, " including that if his "medical condition improve[d] so that I would be able to work, even though I have not yet returned to work, " or if he went "to work whether as an employee or a self-employed person." (D.I. 16-1 at 29) In the application, plaintiff acknowledged that "[t]he above events may affect my eligibility to disability benefits as provided in the Social Security Act, as amended, " and acknowledged that his "reporting responsibilities have been explained to me." (Id. at 29-30)

         On May 9, 2008, the SSA sent plaintiff a notice of a proposed decision that it had information plaintiff had been performing substantial work since January 2006 based on SSA's earnings records and employer work reports. (D.I. 16-2 at 26-29) Plaintiff was informed that, based on this information, his "disability ended because of substantial work October 2005, " and that he was not entitled to payments for January 2006 through December 2007. (Id. at 26) The notice went on to explain that "[g]oing to work does not affect payments right away, " because "a person is allowed a period of 9 trial work months to test his or her ability to work in spite of health problems." (Id. at 27) Plaintiffs nine-month trial work period ran from January 2005 through September 2005. (Id. at 27-28) Plaintiff was advised that his disability ends if, at the end of the trial work period, his work activity showed an ability to do substantial work. (Id. at 28) The SSA informed plaintiff that he could be paid for October 2005 through December 2005 because an individual is entitled to benefits for the "month disability ends [after the trial work period] and the following 2 months no matter how much is earned." (Id.) It further informed plaintiff that he would receive an extended 36 month period of eligibility that commences after the trial work period, and that it would restart payments for any month(s) that plaintiff's work was "not substantial" if his health problems still met its rules. (Id.) Plaintiff's benefits were suspended retroactively from January 2006 through December 2007. (D.I. 16-2 at 43, 45, 46)

         On June 2, 2008, plaintiff was notified that his benefits were continued, effective January 2008, because the SSA determined that he was no longer doing substantial work. (D.I. 16-2 at 46-51) Plaintiff was also informed that he was overpaid $26, 930 for disability payments for January 2006 through December 2007 because of substantial work. (D.I. 16-2 at 46-47) The notice reminded plaintiff that "he must tell us right away about any changes that may affect your benefits. If you do not, you may have to repay any benefits you are not due." (Id. at 48) The notice advised plaintiff to report if "[y]ou went to work since your last report or you return to work in the future" or "[y]ou already reported your work, but your duties or pay have changed." (Id.) The SSA explained to plaintiff that if he did not repay the overpayment within 30 days, it would recover the overpayment from the benefit plaintiff was due on September 3, 2008. (Id. at 47)

         The SSA withheld plaintiff's benefits payments from August 2008 through March 2010 to recover the $26, 930 overpayment.[2] (D.I. 16-3 at 13) When the SSA determined that plaintiff performed substantial work during this time and that, through May 2010, he was overpaid $39, 051.60, it sent plaintiff a notice on May 14, 2010 of a proposed decision and informed him that it had information he had been performing significant work since January 2006. (D.I. 16-1 at 52, D.I. 16-2 at 1-3, D.I. 16-3 at 15-18) Plaintiff was advised that the information was based on plaintiffs signed statement regarding his work activity, the agency's earnings records, and employer work reports. (D.I. 16-1 at 52) Plaintiff was advised that his "disability ended because of substantial work October 2005, " and he was not entitled to payments for January 2006 through the month of the notice. (Id.)

         Plaintiff submitted a request for waiver of the overpayment and stated that he did not believe he was at fault in causing the overpayment or accepting the money. (D.I. 16-2 at 5) The request explained that plaintiff called the SSA when he started working and was told that he would receive benefits for "nine months but it continued past that time." (Id. at 6) During the June 18, 2013 administrative hearing, plaintiff provided similar testimony that, in 2005, he called the SSA when he went back to work, he was told he had a nine-month trial work period in which he could receive benefits, and that his benefits were "going to end in nine months." (Id. at D.I. 16-4 at 42-43) Plaintiff testified that he called the SSA after the trial work period and told it that he "didn't need this" and was told he would "get no more after this." (Id. at 43) When the benefits continued, plaintiff called the agency a "couple times afterwards." (Id.) Plaintiff knew the benefits were supposed to stop after nine months, and testified that he "told them several different times, " but he was "glad in a way they continued it...." (Id.)

         Plaintiff testified that he became confused when he received a letter that his benefits were being reinstated. (Id. at 48, 49) He called the SSA and told them that he was working and did need not the money, (Id. at 48) When plaintiff did not receive benefits for about two and half years, he believed that the SSA "got the hint, " but later learned that ...


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