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Pierce v. Commissioner of Social Security

August 20, 2009

LOIS B. PIERCE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

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.

II. BACKGROUND

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 ("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."*fn1 (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.*fn2 (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.*fn3 (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.*fn4 (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 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,*fn5 spousal insurance benefits are reduced when the party seeking such benefits ...


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