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Zied v. Astrue

June 13, 2008

MINDY JAYE ZIED, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMM'R OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo

MAGISTRATE JUDGE BLEWITT

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the Court are Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Blewitt's Report and Recommendation (Doc. 37) and Plaintiff Mindy Jaye Zied's Objections thereto (Doc. 51). The Magistrate Judge recommended that the Court remand the case to the ALJ for further proceedings and deny Plaintiff's Motion for Sanctions (Doc. 31). For the reasons that follow, the Court will adopt the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, remand this case to the Administrative Law Judge for further proceedings consistent with this opinion, and deny Plaintiff's Motion for Sanctions (Doc. 31).

BACKGROUND

This case is an appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of a decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA"). (See Procedural Order for Social Security Appeals, Mar. 20, 2006, Doc. 4 in 06-1219 (Vanaskie, J.); Am. Compl., Doc. 13 in 06-1219). In her appeal, Plaintiff seeks review of the decision of the Commissioner that denied her request to reopen a prior application for disability insurance benefits ("SSDI") and reduced her award of supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33, 1381-1383f. (See Doc. 37, at 1.)

The facts of this case are well-known to the parties and the Court. Therefore, the Court will discuss only the facts relevant to the objections Plaintiff presently raises. In 1995, Plaintiff filed an application for SSDI and SSI, which was denied initially and on reconsideration by the state agency. (ALJ Decision, Sept. 21, 2004, at 1, R. at 12.) Plaintiff did not request a hearing appealing this denial. (Report and Recommendation, Doc. 37, at 1.) Plaintiff indicates that she attempted to reopen this application in 1999 but that the state agency deemed this attempt to be a second, separate application. (See Letter from Mindy Jay Zied-Campbell to Social Security Administration, Feb. 3, 2004, R. at 142.) On the merits of that second application, the state agency determined that Plaintiff was disabled, and entitled to SSI benefits, as of March 12, 1999. (See ALJ Decision, at 1, R. at 12.) It denied her claim to SSDI benefits, however, because it determined that this claim concerned the same issues as her earlier, unsuccessful claim for DIB benefits in 1995, and that the facts relevant to her SSDI determination were unchanged: namely, the decision "that [Plaintiff] was not disabled . . . at any time on or before March 1982, the date [she] last had enough credits under Social Security to be insured for disability benefits" had not changed. (Id. at 2, R. at 13; "Notice of Disapproved Claim," May 6, 1999, R. at 20.)

I. SSI Benefits

In September 2001, Plaintiff and one of her children moved to a home in Pennsylvania owned by Plaintiff's mother in law, for which Plaintiff and her husband paid rent of one dollar ($1.00), as well as paid homeowner's insurance, real estate taxes and utilities. (Report & Recommendation ["R&R"], Doc. 37, at 2, 7-8 (citing Agreement of Lease, R. at 291-92)). Plaintiff claimed that she paid more than one dollar ($1.00) in rent and her mother-in-law stated that she considered the payments of utilities and taxes, as well as completion of home repairs, to be "rent-like payment[s]." (Id. at 7-8.) In September 2002, Plaintiff's husband moved to Pennsylvania to join her. (Id. at 2 (citing "Statement of Claimant," Oct. 4, 2002, R. at 65)). Due to her reduced rent, which was deemed a "rental subsidy" and counted as income, Plaintiff's SSI was reduced by approximately one hundred eighty dollars ($180.00) between October 2001 and September 2002. (Id. at 2 (citing "Notice of Change in Payment," Nov. 25, 2001, R. at 288-89) and "How We Figured Your Payment For October 2002," Aug. 31, 2002, R. at 290)). In February 2004, the Agency denied Plaintiff's request for reconsideration of this reduction because it stated that she did not timely appeal it. ("Notice of Reconsideration," Feb. 12, 2004, R. at 116.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ regarding this denial. (See "Appeal Request for Denial of Reconsideration," Feb. 16, 2004, R. at 123.)

In June 2001, Plaintiff's husband, who received a needs-based pension from the VA, began also receiving SSDI and SSI benefits, making Plaintiff eligible for spouse's benefits based on her husband's earnings records. (Id.; ALJ Decision, at 2, R. at 13.) Plaintiff was informed in February 2004 that, beginning September 2002, she was not eligible for SSI because of excess income from her husband's VA pension, but that if he voluntarily terminated his SSI, the Agency would recalculate Plaintiff's SSI retroactively to September 2002. (R&R, Doc. 37, at 2.) Plaintiff's husband did voluntarily terminate his eligibility for SSI as of October 1, 2002. (Id. at 3 (citing "Statement of Claimant," Feb. 3, 2004, R. at 108-09)). As a result of this action, Plaintiff was informed she would receive a payment of retroactive benefits, but Plaintiff challenged the manner in which these retroactive benefits were calculated, specifically challenging that between the VA's calculation of benefits and the SSA's calculations, a certain amount of money was improperly being deducted twice. (See "Appeal Request Before an A.L.J., Feb. 16, 2004, R. at 122.)

Both of these challenges to the calculation of Plaintiff's SSI benefit were before the ALJ, whose September 21, 2004 Decision determined that the SSI calculations had been made correctly. (ALJ Decision, R. at 13-15.) On Plaintiff's appeal, Magistrate Judge Blewitt determined that (1) "[t]here is substantial evidence that Plaintiff's SSI payments were correctly reduced due to her receipt of spouse's benefits between November 2002 and February 2004," but that (2) that ALJ "failed to address Plaintiff's receipt of reduced rent," and that "without the ALJ's discussion of this issue, we cannot determine if there was substantial evidence to support the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's reduction of SSI was correct." (R&R, Doc. 37, at 9-11.) The Magistrate Judge recommended remanding the case to the ALJ for consideration of the issue of Plaintiff's rent payments between September 2001 and September 2002. (Id. at 9.)

II. SSDI Benefits

In February 2004, Plaintiff requested that the SSA reopen her 1995 application for SSDI benefits on the grounds that after this application was denied, Plaintiff lost mental capacity to ask for reconsideration. (Statement of Claimant, Feb. 3, 2004, R. at 110-11; Letter from Zied to SSA, R. at 142.) The ALJ, while noting that such a request would normally be denied as untimely, considered Plaintiff's argument for an exception in light of Plaintiff's mental impairment and Social Security Ruling 91-5p. (ALJ Decision, at 2, R. at 13.) The ALJ concluded that despite Plaintiff's "long-term psychiatric history," the record did not show a treatment history from July 1974 through November 1995 and the record also revealed that Plaintiff was married and raising children without complaining of difficulty in doing so, that she had filed an appeal after the initial denial of her June 1995 applications was therefore "well aware of the appeal process," that she "has since filed several requests for reconsideration as well as a waiver of overpayment," and that she has submitted several "well-organized and detailed" briefs. (Id. at 3, R. at 14.) For these reasons, it denied her request to reopen the initial unfavorable SSDI determination. (Id.)

On review, Magistrate Judge Blewitt noted that the ALJ did not specifically reference any medical opinions in determining that Plaintiff did in fact retain the mental capacity needed to properly appeal her initial denial of DIB benefits; in particular, the ALJ did not reference the June 2, 1999 opinion of Dr. Camellia P. Clark, in which Dr. Clark opined that every day since January 1, 1996, Plaintiff's mental health condition would have rendered her unable to file for her hearing. (R&R, Doc. 37, at 16-17.) Concluding that the ALJ's "cursory" statement that he "reviewed the medical record" was not sufficient and that "[w]ithout the ALJ's discussion of Dr. Clark's letter, we cannot determine if there was substantial evidence to support the ALJ's ...


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