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Chesbro v. United States

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 30, 2019


          Paul E. Skirtich, Esq.



         Plaintiff Marsha M. Chesbro (“Plaintiff”) filed this pro se civil action in a Magisterial District Court in Erie County, Pennsylvania, naming as the Defendant Justin Martin, an employee of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). Plaintiff's lawsuit stems from the SSA's efforts to recover certain payments that were made to Plaintiff after she returned to work without notifying the SSA. By Order dated March 26, 2018, the Honorable Mark R. Hornak dismissed Justin Martin from this case and directed the United States of America (hereafter, “United States” or “Government”) to be substituted as the proper party Defendant for purposes of all further proceedings. ECF No. 9.

         Presently pending before the Court is the United States' motion to dismiss the within action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction or, alternatively, for failure to state a claim. ECF No. 21. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the Government's motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. The Government's alternative motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim will be denied as moot.


         When a defendant moves to dismiss a claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), the court must determine whether the defendant is making a “facial or factual challenge to the court's subject matter jurisdiction.” Gould Elecs., Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977)). “In reviewing a facial attack, the court must only consider the allegations of the complaint and documents referenced therein and attached thereto, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Id. On the other hand, a factual attack challenges the trial court's “very power to hear the case.” Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891. Accordingly, “the trial court is free to weigh the evidence and satisfy itself as to the existence of its power to hear the case.” Id. Further, “no presumptive truthfulness attaches to plaintiff's allegations, and the existence of disputed material facts will not preclude the trial court from evaluating for itself the merits of jurisdictional claims.” Id. Importantly, in evaluating a factual attack, “the court may consider and weigh evidence outside the pleadings to determine if it has jurisdiction.” Gould Elecs., 220 F.3d at 178. In either situation, it is the plaintiff's burden to demonstrate the existence of subject matter jurisdiction. See Lee v. Janosko, No. 2:18-CV-01297, 2019 WL 2392661, at *2 (W.D. Pa. June 6, 2019) (“The plaintiff has the burden of establishing that the court has subject matter jurisdiction, . . . and the defendant can challenge whether the plaintiff has done so, through either a facial challenge or a factual challenge to the complaint.”) (citations omitted).

         In this case, the United States is asserting a factual Rule 12(b)(1) challenge. To that end, the Government has submitted evidence outside the pleadings, which this Court is free to consider and weigh in determining whether it has subject matter jurisdiction. Gould Elecs., 220 F.3d at 178. Although Plaintiff was given ample notice and opportunity to respond to the Government's jurisdictional arguments and offer evidence on her own behalf, she has not done so. Accordingly, the Court will decide the Government's motion on the basis of the record as it presently stands.


         In 2010, Plaintiff applied for, and was granted, old-age benefits from the SSA. Decl. of Andrew Mumford, ¶13, ECF No. 22-1. At some point after she began to receive these benefits, Plaintiff returned to work. Id. Plaintiff's earnings made her ineligible for a portion of the retirement benefits that were paid to her between 2010 and 2013. Id. Accordingly, the SSA sent notices to Plaintiff on June 19, 2012 and August 30, 2012, informing her of the overpayment. Id. ¶6. Eventually, the SSA recouped the overpayment by withholding amounts from Plaintiff's monthly benefits and by applying certain underpayments against the outstanding balance. Id. ¶7.

         Plaintiff sought reconsideration of the SSA's initial determination that she had been overpaid; however, the SSA affirmed its initial determination on August 16, 2014. Mumford Decl. ¶¶8-9. Plaintiff subsequently received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, who rendered an “unfavorable” decision on March 24, 2017. Id. ¶¶10-11. The ALJ concluded, in relevant part, that Plaintiff had been paid “full and complete retirement benefits” by the SSA and that “no overpayment or underpayment [was] due” on her account. Id. ¶11.[1]

         Plaintiff never appealed the ALJ's decision to the SSA's Appeals Council. Mumford Decl. ¶12; see also Decl. of Paul K. Nitze, ECF No. 22-2. Instead, she filed a complaint in Magisterial District Court Number MDJ-06-1-03 in Erie County, alleging that SSA officials had committed fraud by taking money from her benefits account. ECF No. 6-2. As relief, she sought $10, 000.00 in damages. Id.

         The United States Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania then removed the case to this judicial district and successfully moved the Court to substitute the United States as the relevant Defendant. ECF Nos. 6-9. The case was transferred to the undersigned on September 18, 2018. ECF No. 15.


         It is axiomatic that federal district courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. v. Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). As a result, “[t]hey possess only that power authorized by the constitution and statute, . . . which is not to be expanded by judicial decree[.]” Id. (citations omitted). The default presumption is that “a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction[.]” Id. (citation omitted). Also relevant to the Court's jurisdictional analysis is the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which shields the United States and ...

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